A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Monday, March 14, 2011

The GCC Intervention: Knowns and Unknowns

The GCC intervention in Bahrain today can be spun or parsed in many ways: a Saudi-imposed pax arabica to stop the problem in Bahrain; a multinational Sunni police force to keep restive Shi‘a in check; a necessary chess move to parry an Iranian attempt to subvert the Gulf; a stability operation. Various regional players are already portraying it as some or all of these. Here are some quick end-of the day thoughts about what we know and, obviously, don't know.
  • Mission. Officially, the GCC force is there to protect government buildings, oil installations, and the financial centers. The first deployments were in the district where the Royal Family is located, so protection of the throne is also apparently a mission. But would these foreign troops be used directly against the demonstrators? That would be a very provocative move. It's also not clear what the mix of military and internal security components is (see "Size and Composition" below), which could tell us more about the mission. There may be an attempt here to portray this as a move against possible Iranian intervention; the Saudi media have sought to discern an Iranian hand behind both internal Saudi protests and the Bahraini movement (mostly through an implied "local Arab Shi‘ites = Iranian fifth column equation which is hardly helpful to communal peace).
  • Who's on Board and Who, if Anyone, Isn't? So far as I've seen at this writing, while Bahrain describes this as a GCC force invited in by Bahrain, only Saudi Arabia and the UAE have confirmed they have troops (Saudi) or police (Emirati) deployed there. But if these are really Peninsula Shield forces, my understanding is they could only be committed by a unanimous GCC decision. Kuwaiti MPs are already asking if Kuwait is supporting the intervention, and Qatar, with its maverick foreign policy and historic dynastic rivalry between the Al Thani of Qatar and the Al Khalifa of Bahrain, seems unlikely to be eager to rescue their ancient rivals. And Qatar might consider that if the GCC can intervene to protect a regime against internal enemies, it could also seek to support rivals against an existing regime, as Qatar has sometimes suspected its neighbors are trying to do. Is the whole GCC really behind this?
  • Size and Composition. The initial reports were of about 1000 Saudi troops (not entirely clear if Royal Saudi Army, National Guard, or a mix), and 500 Emirati police. Are there other contingents? If they really are from the designated Peninsula Shield force, which consists of regular Army (not trained for domestic control), it may be to allow the Saudis to portray this as an international issue, a Perfidious Persian Plot. Perhaps we'll know more tomorrow.
  • How was it Authorized? If this was authorized, as Bahrain implied, by the GCC on Sunday, in an otherwise unannounced meeting, why are we hearing little from Kuwait or Qatar about their roles? Who gave the final authorization? It probably is legal internationally under the GCC security and defense agreements, but it seems to have been put together quickly by an often fractious bloc of countries.
More thoughts as we know more.

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