This week’s bulldozing of the national monument in the centre of Bahrain’s Pearl roundabout reminded me of the Taleban’s dynamiting of the Buddhas of Bamiyan in 2001. Both were crude and violent attempts by regimes to destroy symbols of a happier past and memories of an alternative national identity. Serving as an anti-regime rallying point for the past month, Pearl roundabout was on its way to becoming Bahrain’s equivalent of a Tahrir Square, and thus it literally had to go. Only the day before, in another act of desperation, the Al-Khalifa ruling dynasty invited armed forces from the region’s two most authoritarian states – Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates – to cross the causeway into Bahrain and protect ‘strategic installations’ from protestors. But have they arrived in Bahrain to do much more?
Following a ‘day of rage’ on 14 February by thousands of disgruntled citizens, the Al-Khalifa initially tried to disperse the protestors from Pearl roundabout using rubber bullets and live ammunition. But following international condemnation – including telephone calls from the US and the UK to the Bahraini king – the Bahraini government temporarily gave up on attacking the crowds. The king responded by deploying the crown prince as his chief negotiator in an effort to begin a dialogue.
Since then, with dozens of martyrs now buried, the protestors have solidified their demands. All appear to want a democratic government and an end to traditional monarchy. All also appear to want the removal of the long-serving prime minister of Bahrain – Sheikh Khalifa bin Salman Al-Khalifa – who is regarded as having oppressed the majority shia population for many years and thus enforcing sectarian divisions. The king appears to have been unwilling or unable to meet this key demand and the dialogue subsequently broke down. Some of the protestors – perhaps the majority of the crowd – even began to call for the removal of the entire dynasty, including the king and his crown prince.
Mercenaries and annexation
Sensing renewed protests, from 1 March the Bahraini National Guard, concerned about its limited manpower and the willingness of Bahrainis to open fire on their fellow countrymen, began advertising in employment newsletters in Lahore, Pakistan (specifically in the Our Jang newspaper). They offered 525 Bahraini dinars ($1400) per month for army officers and 162 Bahraini dinars ($430) per month for mercenary anti-riot policeman.
But by 13 March it became clear that the Al-Khalifa’s grip on power was already too fragile, as protestors began to move from the Pearl roundabout to the ‘Financial Harbour’ banking district. For several years Bahrain has been trying to diversify its economy from oil and gas exports given its limited reserves, and one of the economy’s key new sectors is international finance. As such, the protestors’ ability to blockade this part of the city dealt a severe reputational blow to the ruling family and to Bahrain’s economy, causing credit default swaps to rise dramatically.
Having lost faith in the ability of its security forces, on 15 March the Al-Khalifa invited a force of about 1000-1200 Saudi troops into Bahrain. Travelling in armoured personnel carriers and followed by a number of support vehicles, the convoy travelled across the Saudi-built causeway that links the Saudi mainland to Bahrain. Some hours later the Saudi convoy was followed by a smaller convoy of UAE soldiers and riot police, together with accompanying vehicles. After the forces arrived in Bahrain the causeway was reportedly closed.
Significantly the Bahraini, Saudi, and UAE authorities have all justified the deployment on the grounds that it is part of the Gulf Cooperation Council’s ‘Peninsula Shield’ – the GCC-wide defence force that was set up following the liberation of Kuwait in 1991. It has been claimed that the deployment is in Bahrain solely to return the kingdom to stability and that no GCC forces will attack protestors, with their role being limited to protecting key installations such as government offices, palaces, and oil refineries. However, there is no evidence that other GCC countries have been willing to contribute to this force (on the contrary, Kuwait has instead sent in medical teams, which were initially turned away). Within hours of its arrival there were reports in the international media (based on Saudi security sources) that a Saudi soldier had been killed as they tried to challenge protestors, while hundreds of freshly wounded protestors were taken in ambulances to hospitals, some of which were blockaded and attacked by pro-regime guards.
Despite the presence of well armed foreign troops and mercenaries, the protests will likely continue for several weeks as the protestors will be unwilling to give ground before their demands are met in full. Protestors will be keen to seek justice for those responsible for the mounting death toll. With the involvement of foreign forces the Al-Khalifa will increasingly be regarded as illegitimate by the majority of the shia population, as well as by some sections of the smaller sunni population -- or at least those that are not being enriched by subsidies. The US will continue to view the situation in Bahrain with great concern, but ultimately will be unable to intervene or make any public statement condemning the actions of the Al-Khalifa or its Saudi and UAE allies. Its efforts to contain Iran rely on alliances with all three states, and the operation of its naval base in Bahrain. Having already made statements condemning the Saudi and UAE involvement in Bahrain, the Iranian government will become increasingly concerned with the plight of Bahrain’s shia population, with which Iran enjoys historic ties. It is unlikely, however, that Iran will mount any military challenge to Saudi Arabia’s occupation of Bahrain, given the presence of the US base. Moreover, it seems very unlikely that the Bahraini protestors will actually seek Iranian support, as most seem committed to building a strong democratic state capable of determining its own future.