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Bahrain Developments: Saudi Arabia’s Considerations

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Ali Akbar Asadi, PhD Candidate
Department of International Relations, University of Allameh Tabatabaei

Saudi Arabia is ruled by a conservative monarchy. Conservatism and traditionalism of its political system have been reflected in its foreign policy both at regional and international levels. The government, however, took an invasive approach to the popular uprising in Bahrain; one which has been almost unprecedented in Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy. Saudi leaders are known in the region for their use of financial resources, Wahhabi tendencies as well as extremist Wahhabi groups or certain links with regional and international powers in order to promote their policies. When faced with the uprising in Bahrain, Saudis, however, went well beyond traditional methods by sending military forces into Bahrain. To do that, the Saudi did not even wait for the green light from certain domestic leaders in Bahrain or even the United States and reacted rapidly without losing any time.

In view of Saudi Arabia’s invasive approach to Bahrain which was manifested in rapid deployment of Saudi troops in that country and given traditional conservatism which has been embedded in Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy, the question is what factors have caused Saudi Arabia to take such an aggressive approach to Bahrain uprising?

Four factors should be considered here. The first factor is geopolitical links and geographical propinquity between Bahrain and Saudi Arabia in addition to religious commonalties between Saudi and Bahraini Shias, which make Saudi Arabia susceptible to spillover of Bahrain’s uprising. Since Saudi political system derives its legitimacy from the rule of Al-Saud family and Wahhabism, any damage to authoritarian rule of that family as well as theoretical bases of Wahhabism is considered a threat to legitimacy of political and security system of Saudi regime. This is why Saudi Arabia has been trying to form an anti-revolutionary alliance in the region in recent months by gathering all monarchial regimes and highlighting sectarian tensions between Sunnis and Shias. If the popular uprising led to any kind of reform which brought Shias to power in Bahrain, that model would rapidly spread to eastern and other parts of Saudi Arabia, thus, endangering legitimacy of the Saudi political system. This is why Saudis do not allow for the least reforms in Bahrain and emphasis on the need for continuation of the past situation.

The second factor is political, security, economic and even family relations between Al-Khalifa and Al-Saud families in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia and the great influence that Saudis sway on their small neighbor. Therefore, protecting the current political system in Bahrain will influence regional role and position of Saudi Arabia within the (Persian) Gulf Cooperation Council, in the Arabian Peninsula, and even in the whole expanse of the Persian Gulf. Unlike Qatar, Kuwait, and Oman, Bahrain is staunch supporter of Saudi interests in the Council and is of great use to Saudis to build up their regional influence. In return, Saudi Arabia supports Al-Khalifa especially in economic areas. As a result, Saudi Arabia has enough motivations to safeguard Al-Khalifa regime against a majority opposition.

The third consideration for Saudi regime in Bahrain which has made it take an invasive approach is about regional rivalries between Iran and Saudi Arabia and the latter’s effort to counterbalance Iran’s influence. During the past few decades, Iran and Saudi Arabia have been major players in the Persian Gulf. That rivalry has especially intensified subsequent to regime change in Iraq as well as political developments in Lebanon and Palestine. Saudi leaders have been trying to make regional countries believe that Iran is interfering in internal affairs of Arab states and have been very indignant with Iran’s role in regional developments. After the beginning of the popular uprising in Bahrain, the majority of whose population is Shia, and expansion of people’s protests followed by demands for political reforms and even regime change, Saudis took rapid steps to prevent any development which would bring Shias to power and increase Iran’s influence in a country close to their borders.

The fourth consideration, however, is Saudi government’s dissatisfaction with the US approach, as the main strategic ally of Saudi and other conservative Arab regimes, to recent uprisings in Arab countries. After the United States avoided of supporting Mubarak, Saudis looked to Washington as an untrustworthy ally which will not hesitate to sacrifice its old friends when its interests called. Therefore, the Saudi government has decided to use all means and military options available to prevent any change in Bahrain instead of adapting its policy to the US approach to that country.

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