Gulf Cooperation Council Between Two Fires in Bahrain and Libya
by Stephen Schwartz
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.
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.
Time and options are running out for the whole system of despotism in the Muslim lands. The Iranian dictatorship, of course, wishes to exploit the Bahrain occupation to reinforce its grip on its subjects, just as Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei attempted to use the Egyptian revolution to promote their extremist dogmas. After Friday prayers in Tehran on March 18, Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, head of the Iranian state's "Guardian Council" and one of its most retrograde and fanatical clerics, called on the Bahraini Shias to "resist the enemy until you die or win." In another expression of their exotic variety of cognitive dissonance, Iranian propaganda blared, "Qaddafi in Libya commits murder, and the U.S. supports his regime!"
Screeching complaints about the GCC move into Bahrain have also been heard in Shia mosques in Iraq, Lebanon, and Pakistan, and in the United States, Shias in New York have appealed for a "day of rage" to be held on Sunday, March 27, at United Nations Plaza, in protest against what they call "the cruel and criminal governments of Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf states, Yemen, and Libya." But where were the non-Iranian Shias when, in 2009, almost the entire Iranian nation marched against the cruelest of all the Islamist regimes, that of Tehran, with its hallucinated threats to the world? Then, the Shias of Iraq, Lebanon, Pakistan, and the U.S. held their tongues. At this point, the alignment of the U.S. and the Sunni Gulf states makes compelling sense, since the Iranian misrulers and the deranged Qaddafi have more in common with one another than the the West has differences with the GCC.