Last week, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), composed of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Oman, and Bahrain, sent Saudi soldiers and UAE police across the causeway from Saudi territory into Bahrain, as supporters of a Sunni Muslim monarchy, against massive protests by the Shia Muslim majority on the island.
Simultaneously, the Arab League drew back from its previous endorsement of international action against the murderous regime of Muammar Qaddafi in Libya. Nevertheless, within three days the Western-led bombing of the Libyan dictator’s captive territory had begun.
Now, two GCC members, Qatar and the UAE, have joined the coalition against Qaddafi. Qatar was the first among them to send aircraft to bolster the no-fly zone.
On Monday, March 21, Bahraini king Hamad Isa bin Al Khalifa thanked the Saudis and the rest of the GCC for rescuing his country from an “external plot” – language widely interpreted as a reference to expansionist intentions by Iran. Bahrain and Iran had already mutually expelled each other’s diplomats. And according to the Washington Post, Arab League secretary general Amr Moussa has switched back to solidarity with the campaign against Qaddafi.
The actions of the GCC—supporting both the occupation of Bahrain and the liberation of Libya—illustrate the internal contradictions present throughout the Arab countries, but especially in the Saudi kingdom. It is doubtful, to say the least, that Qatar and the UAE would act independently of Saudi approval in joining the anti-Qaddafi effort.
This simultaneous support for repression in Bahrain and freedom in Libya has to do with something more than fear among the Arab Sunnis of Iranian-backed Shia assertiveness in the Gulf. Libya has no Shia minority. Rather, Saudi Arabia and the other GCC members are faced with a genuine dilemma: how to move forward to social and political reform while avoiding radical Islamist dominance. In the Saudi case, ideological hegemony by the state Wahhabi sect is the main source of discontent among the populace. Saudi King Abdullah clearly wants to avoid loss of control by the royal family, especially in the face of Iranian blandishments. These include incitement among the Shia minority in Saudi Arabia’s eastern region, which borders on Bahrain. But the Libyan revolution has posed the issue of lawless tyranny under cover of Arab nationalism too dramatically for the Saudis and GCC to remain indifferent to it.
Moral equivalence, which would erase the difference between the ugly but few casualties suffered by protestors in Bahrain and the brutal atrocities inflicted on the Libyans, is inappropriate. Nevertheless, Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times was prepared to make the case, in a column titled absurdly, “Bahrain Pulls a Qaddafi.” Most important, whether the Saudi rulers wish it or not, a halt to the bloodshed in Libya may well stimulate the further spread of the Arab Spring, into Saudi Arabia itself. And GCC assistance to Bahrain, with deepening isolation of Iran, could revive the long-simmering internal opposition to the Iranian clerical regime.