The Bahraini ruler, Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, has combined a violent crackdown on pro-democracy protests with a request that Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) forces take up station in his country. About 1,000 Saudi Arabian troops, together with police from the United Arab Emirates (UAE), have moved in. The Emir has declared that a state of emergency will obtain for the next three months. There have been violent clashes between demonstrators and government forces. Doctors have reportedly been attacked in hospital wards and six opposition leaders, including the human rights campaigner Abduljalil al-Singace, arrested. Moreover, the very nature of the confrontation is changing rapidly. Although the Saudi troops are located 20 km from the capital, Manama, protesters have called their presence an occupation which gives Bahrain's own forces “a green light to kill our people.” Inevitably, leaders and members of the public elsewhere in West Asia, and further afield, have reacted angrily. In Iraq, 4,000 followers of the Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr have marched through Basra, chanting that Bahrain is doing to its own Shia population what Israel is doing to Palestinians in Gaza. Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has likened the foreign troops' arrival to Saddam Hussein's 1990 invasion of Kuwait.

While such responses are a clear result of Emir al-Khalifa's appeal to his neighbours for troops, they also introduce a further and very dangerous element, namely the exploitation of existing sectarian issues. The Bahraini government has long been known for discrimination against its own Shia majority, who comprise 60 per cent of the population. Secondly, Saudi Arabia itself has a 12 per cent Shia minority, most of whom live near the border with Bahrain; furthermore, the Saudi ruling family's commitment to rigid Salafism makes Riyadh very anxious about any Shia influence real or imagined. The United States, not for the first time in this part of the world, is revealing its own impotence. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has criticised the Bahraini crackdown and has called for peaceful political change, but the White House can easily be put under many forms of pressure. Manama can close the U.S. Sixth Fleet base in Bahrain. Secondly, the U.S. imports substantial amounts of Saudi oil, and is also very hostile to any Iranian support for Shia groups in the Gulf, irrespective of the evidence for or against Tehran's actual influence. Tragically for the ordinary people of Bahrain, their largely non-sectarian and entirely justified campaign for democratic reforms is at serious risk of obliteration by a combination of outside religious agendas and Washington's concern with its own instrumental interests above all else.

Correction

(Sheikh Hamad Bin Isa Al-Khalifa is the King of the Kingdom of Bahrain and not the Emir as mentioned in the Editorial “Bahrainis betrayed” (March 18, 2011). Also Bahrain is the U.S. Fifth Fleet base and not Sixth Fleet as given in the second paragraph of the same editorial.)

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