Saudi troops in Bahrain? A month ago that was the worst case scenario, a threat put out there by the “sky is falling” extremists who were convinced that protesting in Bahrain would not go the way of peaceful demonstrations in Tunisia and Egypt. But the momentum of the movements sweeping the Middle East caught the imagination of young Bahrainis who seized the opportunity to push for their own democratic reforms. They scoffed at the idea that Saudi Arabia would send troops. But here they are, coming in 1000 strong, across a causeway better known for ferrying Saudi partygoers to a more liberal state where movies, booze and other carnal delights are freely available.
In theory the troops are there just to protect major government facilities such as electricity and water supplies. “Phew,” tweeted one observer, “And I thought they were here to shoot people.” But what the troops, sent in as part of the Gulf Cooperation Council Force, are really protecting is the GCC’s way of rule. In other words: autocratic and dictatorial regimes that have survived by grace of liberal cash handouts, not any kind of enlightened leadership (O.K. Qatar, you get a pass on that one – but that’s another blog post). If, god forbid, Bahrain’s protesters get what they want, which is by an large a constitutional monarchy, Saudi Arabia, Oman, the UAE and Kuwait may soon be forced to follow suit, or face the consequences. Already rulers in Oman and Saudi have been promising cash bonuses and loans as if that could somehow hold back the democratic tide. It won’t work. And for that matter, nor will sending Saudi troops into Bahrain. The protests have already moved beyond the point where fear is a negotiating tool.
If you have seen men demonstrating with bare torsos, it’s not because it’s hot in Bahrain. It’s a statement: They are baring their chests to meet the soldiers’ bullets. “Let the children die,” Hassan al Salman, a 23-year-old I.T. engineer with a nice car and a good job told me when I was in Bahrain last month. “Let the people die. I want to die, because if I die the people will get even more angry, and there will be bigger protests, and then we will get what we want.” If the protesters were armed, and demanding the implementation of Shariah law, or calling for the expulsion of the U.S.’s Fifth Fleet, which is stationed there, a crackdown may be considered justifiable. But what the protesters—who are, by the way, resolutely unarmed and peaceful— want is the ability to choose their representatives, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly and an end to the apartheid-like policies of a ruling Sunni minority over a Shia majority. The Saudi troops may succeed in quashing the demonstrations, but in the end, both the royal family that called them in and the GCC leadership that authorized the deployment will end up on the wrong side of history.