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What Role Will Saudi Troops Play in Neighboring Bahrain?

March 14, 2011 at 6:41 PM EST
Following a month of protests challenging the power of Bahrain's ruling monarchy, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states sent at least 1,000 troops into the neighboring nation on Monday. Margaret Warner talks to Kenneth Pollack of the Brookings Institution about the move and Saudi efforts to quell revolutions in the Gulf.
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RAY SUAREZ: Another dramatic turn in the revolts sweeping the Arab world.

Margaret Warner has that story.

MARGARET WARNER: Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states sent at least 1,000 troops and police and dozens of military vehicles across a causeway into Bahrain today. The incursion followed a month of demonstrations and clashes in the Persian Gulf island kingdom, as Bahrain’s majority Shiites protest the two-century rule of minority Sunnis. Seven have been killed.

On Saturday, Defense Secretary Robert Gates visited Bahrain, home to the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet, to tell its rulers they have to take more than what he called baby steps toward reform. The crown prince said he was trying to get all sides to engage in a dialogue.

SALMAN BIN HAMAD BIN ISA AL-KHALIFA, crown prince of Bahrain: We know that a significant portion of the electoral base feels that their voice is unheard. And they want the respect due to them by — to be given to them by the opposition. They want to sit with them and talk to them.

So, you know, at the end of the day, we’re all going to have to live in the same country together. And we’re all going to have to talk to each other.

MARGARET WARNER: A coalition of Bahrain’s Shiite-led opposition groups denounced today’s arrival of forces from the Gulf Cooperation Council, calling it an occupation.

White House spokesman Jay Carney said the U.S. doesn’t consider today’s move an invasion. He urged the Bahraini government to show restraint and begin talks with the protesters.

For more on this move by the Saudis and other Gulf states, we go to Kenneth Pollack, a former Persian Gulf military analyst at the CIA. He’s now research director at the Saban Center of the Brookings Institution.

And, Mr. Pollack, welcome.

This is the first cross-border military move we have seen in response to any of these protests across the Arab world. How shall we look at this? I mean, is this an invasion, or is this the Saudis responding to a 911 call?

KENNETH POLLACK, Saban Center for Middle East Policy: Well, of course, to some extent, it depends on your perspective. For the opposition, it’s an invasion. For the government of Bahrain, it is much-needed support from an ally.

I think what’s important about it, though, is, it does demonstrate the fear of so many of the regimes in the region. What they see is this tidal wave — pardon me the current-affairs pun — of democracy sweeping the nation, threatening their own regimes.

And what’s been fascinating is that the Saudis, while they have internally embraced a program of reform over the last six years, have been tremendously frightened by what they’re seeing elsewhere in the region, fearing that reform could turn into revolution, which could sweep, not only the Bahrainis from power, the other GCC states, perhaps even themselves.

MARGARET WARNER: And how much is driven by their fear also of even having great Shia participation or maybe a Shia-led government right as part of this Arabian Peninsula community?

KENNETH POLLACK: That’s obviously a complicating factor for the Saudis. And it’s always hard to know how much of this is that the Saudis are fearful that any kind of successful revolution in the Gulf could lead to a contagion effect in Saudi Arabia, and how much of it is about the fact that Saudi Arabia’s eastern province, which borders on Bahrain, or is very close to Bahrain, separated only by a small strip of water, is majority Shia, just as Bahrain is, and overseen by a majority Sunni population.

So, that almost certainly is a major factor causing the Saudis to say: You know what? We need to go in there. We need to nip this thing in the bud. We need to snuff out any prospect for a real revolution in Bahrain, which could create problems for us.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, how engaged do you expect this force to become against the protesters? I mean, today, there was no engagement between the two, but — but the protests are strong. And yesterday, they beat back the riot police, the Bahraini riot police.

Could you see these Gulf troops firing on Bahraini protesters?

KENNETH POLLACK: Well, obviously, one of the reasons that — I think that the Saudis decided to go in is that it is, from their perspective, important to demonstrate to the Bahrainis that they’re not going to allow this to go so far.

Bahraini protesters, just like protesters in many other countries, can often believe that, well, the army, their own army is unlikely to fire on them because the soldiers are of the same people. Well, you introduce a foreign force, and that element is absent. They can’t be sure that the Saudis won’t fire on them. In fact, they have to assume that they will.

All that said, I think that the Saudis also have to make a calculation. And there almost certainly is a debate within Saudi Arabia as to whether or not they want to have their forces actually opening fire on Bahraini civilians. Some of the more hard-line elements in the kingdom may think that this would have some kind of a palliative effect, whereas the more moderate elements within the Saudi government probably recognize that this would create all kinds of problems for Saudi Arabia elsewhere in the region.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, does this move by the Bahrainis, the Gulf states, the Saudis also represent a split with Washington on how they should be responding to all these calls for reform?

KENNETH POLLACK: Yes, I think that this does illustrate the fact that the Saudis in particular have a very different view of what’s happening in the region.

And I think that one of the hardest things that Washington has been dealing with is how to, on the one hand, welcome forces of democratic change in the region, while simultaneously reassuring the United States’ more traditional conservative allies, like Saudi Arabia, which is that, while on the one hand, being willing to reform internally itself has been extremely disconcerted by these waves of revolution and these demands for much greater change elsewhere in the region.

MARGARET WARNER: Finally, do you see any evidence yet that Iran is trying to exploit this? Or do you think that this move by Saudi troops into Bahrain will in some way invite that?

KENNETH POLLACK: My suspicion is that the Saudis and the Bahrainis both suspect that the Iranians are deeply involved in what’s going on. There’s been a persistent pattern…

MARGARET WARNER: Even though Washington says there’s no evidence, right?

KENNETH POLLACK: Right.

But it’s been a persistent pattern that Bahrain in particular has tended to blame the problems between Sunni and Shia on Iranian instigation. And there have been times when the Iranians have been more involved.

But the best evidence that seems available is that this really isn’t about Iran. This really is about genuine Shia and even wider Bahraini grievance against the government there.

But I think that one of the other factors that probably is driving the Saudis and the Bahraini government is their fear that, even if the Iranians haven’t been behind it so far, the worst the chaos gets, the more likely that Iran will get involved.

MARGARET WARNER: Kenneth Pollack of the Brookings Institution, thanks a lot.

KENNETH POLLACK: My pleasure. Thank you for having me.