Thursday, October 8, 2015

Saudi Arabia Drags Bahrain Back into the International Spotlight

It's been a while, but I've managed to eke out a few minutes to post here just as confirmation that I've not died, joined the CIA and been sworn to silence, etc.

In fact, I was impelled to post mainly by the reemergence after a long hiatus of another source of Bahrain commentary, namely the "advocacy group" Citizens for Bahrain.  This group of pro-government Bahrainis and/or Western PR firm employees, whose e-mail listserv and other publication machinery was in full tilt in the run-up to last fall's parliamentary elections and then in the aftermath, in recent times has been relatively inactive.  The group sent over 100 e-mails during 2014, for example, compared to only around 20 in 2015, and most of these were concentrated at the beginning of the year.

Now, however, I've received three messages in the space of about a week--one attacking the British opposition leader for his criticism of Bahrain and Saudi Arabia ("the Bahraini dictatorship murdering its democracy movement, armed by us"—ouch) in his keynote address to the Labour Party; a second attacking Iran for its criticism of Saudi Arabia in the wake of the tragic hajj stampede; and a third attacking Marc Owen Jones and coauthors for their criticism of Bahrain in a new book edited by Jones and other Bahrain Watch members. Am I detecting a theme here?

Clearly, Bahrain once again is finds itself in the uncomfortable position of international scrutiny, and is doing what it can to fend off critics.  Yet, this case bears an interesting distinction from previous ones: renewed diplomatic pressure is coming not as a result of any development in Bahrain itself, or as a routine consequence of Bahrain's hosting of high-profile annual events such as the Formula 1 race or Manama Dialogue.  No, here we can clearly see that the spotlight on Bahrain is a side-effect of the much more massive spotlight being shined on Saudi Arabia owing to its disastrous foray into Yemen, the continued growth of ISIS, the further escalation of the war in Syria following Russia's entrance into the conflict, and general questions about the kingdom's management and leadership after two deadly incidents at the hajj.

In the past month alone, Saudi Arabia was blasted by the potential future Prime Minister of its strongest political ally, Great Britain; faced accusations by Iranian, Indonesian, and other officials about its handling of the stampede in Mina, including misrepresentation of the death toll; narrowly (and controversially) averted a UN resolution submitted by the Netherlands calling for an international investigation into the war in Yemen; and, according to this story in yesterday's Al-Monitor, apparently now faces opposition by members of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee to an arms deal that would send additional precision-guided munitions (and other high-tech weaponry promised as compensation for the Iranian nuclear deal) to the kingdom. The article reads,
“What we are concerned about is that there is not a military solution in Yemen,” Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., the top Democrat on the panel, told Al-Monitor. “What we want to do is get the parties serious about implementing a political solution. We thought we had a clear track to that, and it's off track right now. So we want to get it back on track.”

Cardin described the delay as a fairly routine matter of lawmakers and staff pressing the administration for answers and reassurances. He and others made it clear, however, that senators on the panel, particularly Democrats, have a wide array of concerns they want to see addressed.

“This proposal is receiving a considerable level of congressional scrutiny,” one Senate Democratic aide acknowledged.

A coalition of human rights and arms control groups has been working behind the scenes for weeks to try to get lawmakers to speak up against the Saudi-led air campaign in Yemen, which has been blamed for the deaths of more than 2,300 civilians over the past six months. Their message emerged in public Oct. 6 during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Yemen that saw several Democrats question the wisdom of re-arming the Saudis.

“I fear that our failure to strongly advocate diplomacy in Yemen over the past two years, coupled with our failure to urge restraint in the face of the crisis last spring, may put the viability of this critical [US-Saudi] partnership at risk,” said Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass. “The Leahy Law prohibits US security assistance — and many forms of defense cooperation — with forces that have engaged in gross violations of human rights. If reports are accurate, the Saudi indiscriminate targeting in the air campaign and an overly broad naval blockade could well constitute such violations.”
And, if this were not cause enough for concern, last week saw the widespread publication and reporting of two letters penned by an anonymous Saudi royal and circulated among senior members of the family that revealed significant factionalism within the Al Sa'ud over the leadership of King Salman and his son.  An article in yesterday's Foreign Policy blog sums up the near-apocalyptic mood nicely: "It’s Time for the United States to Start Worrying About a Saudi Collapse."

It is under this backdrop, then, that the traditional diplomatic relationship between Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, in which the latter comes to the former's defense, has been turned on its head.  In a show of support for the war in Yemen, in early September King Hamad announced that his own sons Nasser and Khalid would join the fight.  (Some pro-Iranian news outlets have since claimed that Khalid was injured or even killed in a Houthi missile attack in Ma'rib.)

Bahrain also reacted vociferously to suggestions by Iran and other countries to internationalize the hajj pilgrimage (and therefore divest Saudi Arabia of significant religious cache and tourist revenue) by handing stewardship of the Islamic holy cities to a neutral authority.  Indeed, one gets the impression that Bahrain's October 1 expulsion of the Iranian ambassador, ostensibly after the discovery of an opposition arms depot linked to Iran, was a response primarily to its role in keeping diplomatic pressure on Saudi Arabia.  For instance, this Bahrain News Agency story detailing a Shura Council's debate of "Iranian interference [and] threats" devotes three of six paragraphs to
the Iranian statements [that] bear threats to the GCC countries, [for instance] the statements of Iranian Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces Ali Al-Khamenei on September 30 during a graduation ceremony of cadets in which he targeted Saudi Arabia following the stampede in Mena during pilgrimage.

The committee voiced its categorical rejection of those defamatory statements which do not show any respect to the major role played by Saudi Arabia in serving the pilgrims and facilitating their rituals. It also added that the Iranian statements represented an explicit threat to sow sedition by disseminating fallacies.

The committee stressed that Saudi Arabia's security is part of Bahrain's security which is a red line, adding that those attempts will never succeed to shake regional stability and Iran's attempts to impose hegemony on the whole region will be doomed to failure thanks to the great awareness and determination of the GCC people and their belief in the Arab identity of the region and the wisdom its leaders.
It is notable also that another Saudi proxy, Yemen, cut diplomatic relations with Iran almost simultaneously, once again for Iran's alleged involvement in arming and training the opposition there. Several days later, the nephew of the late Sa'ud al-Faisal, Prince Khalid bin Sultan, told an audience on Capitol Hill that Saudis fighting in Yemen have confirmed the presence of Iranian and Hizballah fighters, and more generally warned against "increasing Iranian incursion into other states’ affairs." While his comments were not meant to represent the official position of Saudi Arabia, it is difficult to imagine that they will not be taken as such.

Thus, it would seem that, faced with renewed threats from all sides, Saudi Arabia is doubling down on what it knows: the sectarian strategy in which accusations and resulting fears of Iranian empowerment are meant, first, to justify otherwise unpalatable actions; but, more importantly, to convince allies that there is no other option but continued support of Saudi Arabia in the face of far scarier alternatives. Five years after the onset of the Arab uprisings, one wonders how much longer such a strategy can hold out.

Update: I forgot to mention this article in Foreign Affairs published this week by myself and Michael Ewers on the topic of the Gulf states' non-acceptance of large numbers of Syrian refugees.

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