Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Bahrain: On the sectarian razor's edge

See also: www.southasiaanalysis.org

Bahrain, a Shia majority State ruled by a Sunni family, is on the sectarian razor's edge following the entry of about 2000 troops from the member-States of the Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) into Bahrain in the early hours of the morning of March 14,2011, to guard the banking district and vital installations. One thousand of these troops with 150 armoured personnel carriers have reportedly come from Saudi Arabia, about 500 from the United Arab Emirates and the remaining from other GCC States. Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates are the members of the GCC.

2. The pro-reform protesters, largely Shias, who had been demonstrating for the last five weeks mainly in the Pearl Roundabout area, moved for the first time into the banking district on March 13. There were violent clashes between the police and the protesters when the police prevented them from occupying the banking district, resulting in injuries to a large number of persons.

3. The move of the demonstrators to the banking district created nervousness and panic in the Government which saw it as the beginning of an attempt by the demonstrators to attack economic targets and paralyse the economy. The local security agencies saw it as a move which was not spontaneous, but had been instigated by Iran through its contacts in the local Shia population.

4. An emergency request for help was sent to the GCC Secretariat and there was an immediate positive response. The Government has stated that the troops of the GCC countries would be used mainly for static physical security duties to guard vital installations and the economic infrastructure and that they would not be used for law and order duties which might bring them into a confrontational situation with the Shia population.

5. What would be the nature of the command and control over the GCC troops is not yet clear. Will they operate autonomously and if so, under whose command? Or will they operate under the command of the Bahrain Army?

6. The Shia protesters have projected the GCC troops who have taken up position in Bahrain as an army of occupation. Nabeel Rajab, from the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, told Al Jazeera that the Saudi troops would be opposed by the protesters. "This is an internal issue and we will consider it as an occupation," he said. "This step is not welcomed by Bahrainis. This move is not acceptable at all. It is a repressive regime supported by another repressive regime." There is limited likelihood of clashes between the GCC troops and the pro-reform protesters so long as the GCC troops keep themselves confined to their static physical security duties.

7. The Shia demonstrators for democracy and political reforms have till now been avoiding a projection of their movement as a confrontation between the Shia population and the Sunni rulers and their security forces. The deployment of the Sunni forces from outside Bahrain for the physical security of vital installations threatens to give it the colour of the Shias of Bahrain being suppressed by the forces of the Sunni rulers of the region.

8. Calls for regional Shia solidarity with fellow Shias in Bahrain sought to be suppressed by foreign Sunni forces could lead to a pan-Gulf Shia unrest in the eastern region of Saudi Arabia, in Kuwait and the UAE, with the Shia protesters looking up to Iran even more than till now for guidance and help.

9. There have been only proforma expressions of concern from the US and other Western countries to the entry of the GCC troops into Bahrain. A statement from the White House spokesman Tommy Vietor said: "We urge our GCC partners to show restraint and respect the rights of the people of Bahrain, and to act in a way that supports dialogue instead of undermining it." At the same time, the Western countries have reasons to be worried that Iran might turn out to be the ultimate beneficiary of any pan-Gulf Shia unrest. If the Shia unrest gets aggravated, what would be the impact on the Shias of Pakistan, who constitute about 20 per cent of the population? ( 15-3-11)

The writer is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai.