Saudi Arabia has taken the unprecedented decision to become an imperial power opposed to reform and change.
It has now deployed forces in a foreign country in defense of a monarchy. Along with five hundred troops from UAE, a thousand Saudi troops have entered Bahrain to engage the protesters there demanding a democratic transition in Bahrain. This singular move by Saudi Arabia will have a far reaching and even destabilizing impact on the region.
This is the first instance of direct foreign intervention in any of the countries facing demands for political and social change in the Arab world since the beginning of the Jasmine revolution in Tunisia in late 2010. The Saudi military intervention, which is already being characterized as a 'foreign occupation' by Bahraini protesters will open the door for other nations to now intervene. Iran has expressed its displeasure in strongest of terms and one can now expect Iran to be more inclined to intervene in Bahrain on behalf of the Shii protesters.
Saudi Arabia for decades has maintained a "moderate and conservative" foreign policy. Saudi Arabia believed in maintaining the status quo in the region, which kept the Saud family in charge of the world's biggest oil reserves and Saudi Arabia a co-leader (along with Egypt) of the Arab world. They did not aggressively intervene in the domestic affairs of any other nation nor did they act decisively on any regional issues.
Here is a brief list of Saudi abstinence in foreign policy:
• While Egypt fought three wars for the Palestinian cause, Saudi Arabia, despite its rhetoric on Islam did not fight for Jerusalem, ever.
• Saudi Arabia has never used the oil weapon against Israel or the West. Even during the oil crisis of 1973, Saudi Arabia moderated its impact by exceeding its own oil production beyond its OPEC quota.
• When it was threatened by Iraq in 1990, and when Kuwait was occupied by Iraq, the biggest purchaser of arms in the Middle East, chose to let non-Muslim armies defend the two holy mosques, rather than fight.
• Even as Israel hammered its close ally Lebanon in 2006 for weeks, the Saudis watched impotently, pleading the U.S. to do something.
But now suddenly the Saudi regime is sending troops to defend stability in Bahrain. This is not an insignificant move. While the size of the troops may be tiny, the decision is indication of things much more deeper and bigger. The Saudi regime is panicking. It feels that it is fighting for its survival and it has realized that now it cannot rely on the United States to perpetuate its existence.
As protests spread all over the Middle East, including countries in the Saudi Arabian peninsula, Oman, Bahrain and Yemen, and long standing dictatorships in Tunisia and Egypt collapsed, the Saudi regime read the writing in the sand -- change is coming to the Arab world and no one will be spared.
Saudi Arabia was the most vocal and insistent supporter of Mubarak's regime in Egypt. It even offered to compensate for the foreign aid that the US was threatening to cut off to Egypt if the regime used force to deny the demands for change. Rather than help broker a dialogue between the regional regimes and their peoples, as one would expect a regional leader to do, Saudi Arabia has only offered financial assistance to dictators who fight and refuge for those who run.
The values that are driving the current fever of rebellion in the Middle East are fundamentally opposed to those that underpin the Saudi monarchy. Therefore even if there are no immediate protests in Saudi Arabia or they remained confined to the small minority of marginalized Shiis, the demand for personal dignity, for freedom, for democratic, accountable and transparent governance, will become the dominant aspirations of Arab people and Saudi citizens cannot be expected to remain immune for long. The Saudis are afraid that their own regime will eventually fall if revolutions are allowed to succeed everywhere.
Bahrain is clearly the weakest link in the GCC, because the fundamental fault lines in that tiny country are so pronounced. There is a vast gulf between the rich and poor. The distribution of wealth and opportunities are extremely skewed in the favor of the Sunni minority and the Shii population lives in poverty in an oil rich country. The Saudi intervention is recognition of the fragility of the Bahraini regime and the Saudis hope to stop the domino of change from entering the Arab peninsula through Manama.
The United States is currently in a coma. We have failed to act decisively even as civil war wages in Libya, as a new settlement crisis raises its head in the West Bank, and Saudi Arabia sends troops into a country that hosts our fifth fleet. Perhaps a war between Iran and Saudi Arabia in Bahrain may wake up Rip Van Winkle in the White House.
Dr. Muqtedar Khan is Associate Professor at the University of Delaware and a Fellow of The Institute for Social Policy and Understanding. His website is http://www.ijtihad.org.
Follow Muqtedar Khan on Twitter: www.twitter.com/muqtedar