The eyes of the world remain fixed on Ukraine, where Russia has annexed Crimea and is boosting its military forces along Ukraine’s eastern border. Lost in public consciousness is another recent and ongoing incursion after a massive anti-government uprising: the intervention by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in Bahrain in mid-March 2011. Three years later, foreign troops are still there, serving at the pleasure of King Hamad.
The Bahraini uprising in 2011 was, in terms of a percentage of population, by some estimates, the most popularly supported mass revolt of all Arab Spring countries. It threatened not only the Khalifas, the Sunni family that has ruled the country for centuries but also the dynastic systems of other Persian Gulf nations. To keep the Khalifas on their throne, the Saudis sent in their national guard, the Emiratis sent police forces, and the Kuwaitis sent their navy to patrol the borders of the small island nation. The U.S. Navy, which has maintained a permanent naval presence since 1947, was already there. In addition to the estimated 5,000 Saudi and Emirati forces, about 7,000 American military personnel are stationed less than 10 miles from the Pearl Roundabout, the center of the country’s protest movement — Bahrain’s equivalent to Tahrir Square.
While Bahraini officials pointed to the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) to justify the deployment, the GCC was founded to protect the six member states against external threats. But the pro-democracy movement in Bahrain was entirely an internal affair. Although Bahraini leaders tried to claim the domestic unrest was an Iranian conspiracy, they could provide no evidence to support this claim. Just three days after Saudi and Emirati forces crossed the border, all seven Bahraini opposition groups signed a declaration condemning the intervention and demanding their withdrawal.
At the time, officials claimed that the forces were there merely to protect vital installations such as oil fields, not to squash the pro-democracy movement. That remained the responsibility of the Bahraini police. But with the death of an Emirati police officer earlier this month, it has become clear that the foreign troops are in fact involved in putting down protests. First Lieut. Tariq al-Shehi died when an improvised bomb exploded in the village of Daih, near Manama. The state-controlled Bahrain News Agency said that he died “while confronting a terrorist group.” Opposition groups have condemned the attack and said they “regretted any casualties, regardless of which side they belonged to, including security forces.”
The fact that Emiratis — not Bahrainis or naturalized citizens — are engaged in policing in Bahrain is disconcerting. Imagine German police being sent to quash a rebellion in Poland under the guise of NATO. Imagine Russian police patrolling the streets of Kiev at the behest of ousted President Viktor Yanukovich. We would hear no end of it. But the Saudi and Emirati forces in Bahrain have largely stayed off the radar of the international media. Is this because Bahrain is a small country in the Middle East and not a big country in Europe? Perhaps. But it is also due to the regime’s strategy of systematically shutting out journalists and outside observers, as documented by Bahrain Watch. Last year, when I attempted to return to Bahrain for a research trip, I was denied entry and deported after spending nine hours in the airport at Manama. Reporters from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, BBC, Reuters, Al Jazeera and a host of other media outlets have been either expelled or denied access. Given the lack of media coverage, we may never know exactly what the foreign forces in Bahrain are up to. But the death of the Emirati policeman indicates a new strategy on the part of the ruling families of the Gulf. Bahraini officials announced that he was part of a never-before-heard-of mission called Waves of the Gulf.
On March 16, Crimea voted to join Russia, and Putin has announced the peninsula’s annexation. Similarly, for the past few years, there have been recurring rumors about a potential union between Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. The idea of “Saudi-Bahrainia” was discussed again at the GCC summit in December. But so far, nothing has come of it.
Obama's visit to Saudi Arabia March 28-30 would be a welcome opportunity to revisit these issues that otherwise risk being forgotten. As the world waits for the next Russian move in Crimea, let’s remain alert to the Saudi, Emirati and U.S. forces in Bahrain — and the possibility of another annexation-in-the-making.