Saudis’ Bahrain Intervention: Who Cares What Washington Thinks?

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Because what’s Obama going to do, after all – impose sanctions and stop importing oil? Saudi Arabia’s decision to send troops to Bahrain to help the monarchs next door crush a democratic rebellion is a barely disguised slap in the face to the Obama Administration, and further evidence of Washington’s diminished influence over Middle East allies.

Not even Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has made a political career out of defying U.S. pressure to do the sensible thing, would have the chutzpah to snub Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretary Robert Gates, as Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah has done this week, declining to meet with them ostensibly for reasons of his health. Nobody in Washington buys that excuse, according to the New York Times, which quotes U.S. officials as saying the Saudi leadership is no longer interested in hearing American ideas on how they should be responding to the pressure for democratic reforms. “They show little patience with American messages about embracing what Mr. Obama calls ‘universal values,’ including peaceful protests,” the Times reports, adding that that the Saudis were livid that President Obama ignored their demand that he support Egypt’s President Mubarak “even if he began shooting protesters”.

In a commentary in Foreign Policy Georgetown Arab Studies professor Jean Francois Seznec   unpacked the implications of the Saudi intervention.

On Saturday, March 12, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates visited Bahrain, where he called for real reforms to the country’s political system and criticized “baby steps,” which he said would be insufficient to defuse the crisis. The Saudis were called in within a few hours of Gates’s departure, however, showing their disdain for his efforts to reach a negotiated solution. By acting so soon after Gates’s visit, Saudi Arabia has made the United States look at best irrelevant to events in Bahrain, and from the Shiite opposition’s point of view, even complicit in the Saudi military intervention.

Seznec suggests that some may have hoped the Saudis’ arrival would scare the protesters to the negotiation table on the regime’s terms, but it appears, in fact, to be having the opposite effect. The most moderate of the Shi’ite parties, the Wefaq Party which seeks constitutional reforms, denounced the Saudi intervention as an “occupation”, and their presence make it impossible for the party to negotiate, giving the upper hand in the Shi’ite protest movement to more radical groups. But, he suggests, negotiations may not be the Saudis’ goal. While King Hamad bin Khalifa is said to favor negotiation and an approach more in line with U.S. counsel, the Prime Minister, Sheik Khalifa bin Khalifa is said to favor a harder line, which would be in line with the Saudis’ own thinking on how to respond to protesters demanding democratic reforms. Or, as the hardline Saudi Interior Minister Prince Nayef reportedly warned a group of Saudi dissidents, “what we won by the sword we will keep by the sword.”

The problem, of course, is that applying the sword to unarmed democracy protests is a surefire way to incubate radicalism. As the Financial Times warned in its editorial on Tuesday,

This is an escalation that pushes a mass reform movement into the arms of revolutionaries. It is also a failure of nerve and error of judgment that could sentence the Gulf to open-ended conflict, whatever the short-term outcome in Bahrain… It guarantees radicalisation, when reform is all most Bahraini and Gulf citizens want. And it invites Iran and its proxies such as Hizbollah, which barely have a toehold on the Arabian peninsula, to come charging in.

But looking across the region now from the debacle of Libya’s uprising to the fall of Mubarak, the failure of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, the collapse of the pro-Western government in Lebanon and the dominance of Iran’s allies in Iraq’s government, it’s clear that the Saudis ignoring Washington is but the latest instance of the passing of Pax Americana in the Middle East.

P.S. Further to the last point, we learn today that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was  also snubbed by the six youth groups that drove the Egyptian revolution. They refused an invitation to meet with her, they said, “based on her negative position from the beginning of the revolution and the position of the US administration in the Middle East.”