The sight of smiling Saudi soldiers flashing the V-sign of peace as they rolled into Bahrain in light-armoured vehicles on 14 March must have surprised many Saudis and Bahrainis who probably had never dreamed they would witness such a scene in their liv_es._
But King Hamad bin Eissa Al-Khalifa, the minority Sunni ruler of Bahrain, whose family has been in power for the past 200 years, had called upon fellow member states of the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) for help in quelling the unending protests of the majority Shia, which have resulted in the deaths of protesters and were forced from Pearl Square, and are now blocking the entrances to the financial district.
Bahrain has always been proud of its relative openness and ease of doing business. Having mobs of its own dissatisfied citizens turning the tiny island-state into something decidedly less than business-friendly was too much for some in the royal family. For behind the scenes a struggle was emerging between the more reform-minded Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al-Khalifa and the hardline Prime Minister Sheikh Khalifa bin Salman Al-Khalifa. The arrival of GCC troops (the United Arab Emirates contributed 500 soldiers, as well as Qatar and Kuwait) and the subsequent violent removal of the protesters from the financial district left no doubt that the hardliners were winning.
The televised scenes of Shia Bahraini protesters being shot at close range and in some cases being denied access to prompt medical care cast the conflict in a horrific light: The wealthy Sunni elite versus the poorer and discriminated-against Shia who were asking for better jobs, a constitutional monarchy and a fully-elected parliament. At first the king made a few concessions by reshuffling his cabinet, promising new elections down the road and giving cash handouts to the people. But the Shia opposition parties rejected these as not enough, and soon hardliners on both sides had dug in their heels. Even the Shia opposition seemed split between the Wefaq Party and Hassan Mushaima, who recently having been pardoned and let back into the country by the king, was calling for the monarchy to be abolished and a republic to be formed.
This radicalisation of Shia demands must have sent shock waves through Riyadh, Doha, Kuwait City, Abu Dhabi and Muscat, the capitals of Gulf countries with hereditary rulers that have never had to share much power with anyone. Mushaima and five other opposition leaders were promptly arrested and jailed.
These sad events caused Shias in Iraq and Lebanon to hold rallies to show their solidarity with their brethren in Bahrain, and to call for Saudi troops to be withdrawn. In Iran, 700 protesters threw stones at the Saudi Consulate in Mashhad on 18 March, and in Tehran last week radical cleric Ayatollah Ahmed Jannati called on Bahraini Shias to "resist against the enemy until you die or win". Iran later withdrew its ambassador from Bahrain, and the island-state then expelled Iran's charge d'affaires. Finally on 20 March, the king of Bahrain, clearly alluding to Iran, announced that his country had foiled a three-decades long plot by an unnamed foreign nation to destabilise his country when his army clamped down on the pro-democracy protesters.
Many observers have therefore cast the showdown in Bahrain as a proxy battle between Sunni-majority Saudi Arabia and Shia- majority Iran for influence in the region. With Shias having come to power recently in Iraq and Lebanon, Bahrain has become a red-line in the sand for Iran's expanding influence in the region that none of the Sunni-ruled Gulf states will allow to be crossed.
"Bahrain is seen as Saudi Arabia's backyard, and an overthrow of the Al-Khalifa would open the door more widely than before for Iranian influence," said Christopher Davidson, reader in Middle East politics at Durham University in the UK, and the author of several books on the UAE. "More importantly, it's a red line for autocratic Gulf regimes as much as a geopolitical red line: if the Al-Khalifa fall, it will break the 'bubble of invincibility' of Gulf sheikhs."
Toby Jones, an assistant professor of Middle East history at Rutgers University in New Jersey, and a specialist in Saudi affairs, stressed in an interview that it was the Gulf governments that were turning the Bahrain protests into a sectarian issue and not the protesters themselves.
"None of the Arab states in the Gulf want to see a close neighbour fall, particularly with the various sectarian elements at play. I want to be clear here, though, that I think it is the Arab Gulf Sunni governments and not the protesters in Bahrain or elsewhere that are playing the sectarian card. My sense, and I know many of them, is that the protesters are serious about democracy," Jones said.
Of the six GCC states, Bahrain is the only one with a Shia- majority population.
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