Saudi Arabia polices the region as trouble stirs at home
The Saudi regime is stepping up its regional security role, but it is clear that it is not immune from 'contagion'
Saudi Arabia's decision to send troops into Bahrain to help stabilise the country following violent anti-government demonstrations marks another stage in Riyadh's reluctant emergence as a regional policeman at a time when the Arab world faces unprecedented turmoil.
The Saudi move, requested by Bahrain's embattled Sunni Muslim royal family, is motivated primarily by self-interest. If Bahrain, with its majority Shia population, succumbed to an Egyptian-style popular uprising then the regime in Riyadh would fear, rightly, that its oil-rich eastern province, where many Shia live, might be next.
But Saudi actions are also influenced by larger geostrategic considerations. One is Riyadh's close military and economic alliance with the US – its defender of last resort – which in effect embraces Bahrain, home to the US fifth fleet. The move by the Gulf Cooperation Council will not have come without prior consultation with Washington.
Another crucial consideration is Riyadh's intensifying rivalry with Iran, which has powerful political and religious aspects (Iran is majority Shia Muslim, Saudi Arabia is majority Sunni).
The developments in Bahrain follow stepped-up Saudi involvement in other regional flashpoints. They include Lebanon, where King Abdullah tried unsuccessfully last year to persuade Syria and Iranian-sponsored Hezbollah to take a less confrontational line; and Yemen, where Saudi Arabia has supported the government of Ali Abdullah Saleh, an American ally, against Iranian-backed rebels and al-Qaida infiltrators.
The Saudis have also been actively involved, with the Obama administration, in international efforts to forge an Israel-Palestine settlement, another regional running sore exploited by Iran. The Saudi peace plan of 2002 remains the most likely basis for ending the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Saudi efforts to keep a lid on unrest in the region extend to Oman – like Bahrain, a relatively poor country that acts as a base for the US military.
Unprecedented protests there, inspired by Tunisia and Egypt, induced Sultan Qaboos bin Said, who has ruled Oman for 40 years, to announce on Sunday he would cede some legislative powers, double monthly welfare payments and increase pension benefits. Much of the money will come from a $20bn fund created last week by Saudi Arabia and other oil-rich Gulf states to help Bahrain and Oman.
But Saudi and US efforts to calm the situation in Yemen appear to have failed so far. In the latest unrest in Sana'a and Aden, two people were killed and dozens injured when police fought protesters demanding an immediate end to President Ali Abdullah Saleh's 32-year rule.
Saudi Arabia's growing regional security role is fully understood and underwritten by the Obama administration which, for example, has encouraged Riyadh to pump more oil to make up for the shortfall caused by the Libyan uprising.
But the US continues to try to have it both ways, doggedly pursuing its strategic interests in the region while freely criticising Arab governments that suppress protests that would undercut them.
Addressing weekend events in Bahrain and Yemen, the White House was typically holier than thou. "We urge the governments of these countries to show restraint and to respect the universal rights of their people," it said. Robert Gates, the US defence secretary, who visited Bahrain on Friday, also prated preachily about democratic reform.
But behind the scenes Obama officials admit in interviews with US media that they have assured Bahrain's royals of their full support if they promise to pursue gradual reform.
Gates raised another concern, too – Iran. "There is clear evidence that as the process [of Arab reform] is protracted, particularly in Bahrain, that the Iranians are looking for ways to exploit it and create problems," he said.
Gates did not say what the "clear evidence" was. But his view is shared by analysts such as Stratfor's George Friedman. He argued recently that the US withdrawal from Iraq, to be completed in December, and continuing military and institutional weakness in Baghdad, is set to give an enormous boost to Iran's regional influence.
Events across the Gulf could compound Iran's advantage, Friedman said (writing before the Saudi decision to move into Bahrain).
"If the Saudis intervened in Bahrain, the Iranians would have grounds to justify their own intervention, covert or overt. Iran might also use any violent Bahraini government suppression of demonstrators to justify more open intervention.
"In the meantime, the United States, which has about 1,500 military personnel plus embassy staff on the ground in Bahrain, would face the choice of reinforcing or pulling its troops out," he warned.
It's clear from the comments of Shia opposition leaders in Bahrain, who say the Saudi intervention amounts to a declaration of war, that not everyone in the Arab world (to put it mildly) welcomes Riyadh playing the role of regional policeman.
And even as the Saudi regime steps up its efforts to neutralise regional unrest, the fact that it is not immune itself from the "contagion" was driven home at the weekend when hundreds of family members of people jailed without charge rallied in front of the interior ministry in Riyadh.
The highly unusual protest was peaceful. But it followed closely on last Friday's "day of rage", and it was not likely to be the last.
Despite these unmistakeable portents, the profound lack of understanding among veteran Saudi leaders about what is happening around them was sharply illustrated by remarks by the interior minister, Prince Nayef bin Abdul-Aziz, the king's half-brother, congratulating the regime on surviving the "day of rage".
"I congratulate King Abdullah and his crown prince Sultan for having these kind and loyal subjects," Nayef said. "Some evil people wanted to spread chaos in the kingdom and called for demonstrations that have dishonourable goals." Luckily, he suggested, this deeply nefarious plot had been thwarted.