|The Gulf Cooperation Council sent troops into Bahrain in order to crack down on protesters [GALLO/GETTY]|
A proposal to boost the Peninsula Shield, the Gulf Cooperation Council’s combined military force, has been approved by its six member states, and could increase to include 100,000 troops before the end of the year, the director of a government linked think-tank in Kuwait has told Al Jazeera .
The Peninsula Shield currently consists of about 40,000 troops and has its permanent base in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province. The proposed expansion would be a huge boost from the previous force’s incarnation, whose numbers fluctuated between 5-10,000 troops during its existence.
Its permanent military base could also be moved to Bahrain. “There is a large de facto presence currently in Bahrain which could evolve into a permanent military base,” Dr Sami Alfaraj, a security, defence and intelligence advisor to the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and President of the Kuwait Centre for Strategic Studies told Al Jazeera.
According to Dr Alfaraj, the decision to expand the ‘Shield’, as it is known by its troops, was taken largely to counter Iran “and its subversive terrorist elements across the GCC”.
But is the motive for building a bigger force really to defend the region from a potential attack from Iran – or to prevent an Arab Spring in their own backyard?
Back in March, when the protest movement in Bahrain was gaining the same kind of momentum that toppled Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak the month before, the GCC issued a mandate to send nearly 2000 troops to the tiny island to suppress protests and restore public order. What followed was a bloody confrontation between activists and troops in Manama’s Pearl Roundabout, the focal point of protest for the opposition.
Dozens of protesters were killed in the crackdown and hundreds more imprisoned. Human rights groups reported that many wounded activists who were sent to the hospital were subsequently arrested. Others simply went missing. At least 32 people, mostly opposition activists, have died since March and nearly 1000 are being held in detention, many without charge.
To the ruling Gulf monarchies, the opposition movement was demonstrating dangerously similar strength to the protests that succeeded in bringing down Mubarak and Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia. However, analysts say the motive behind the GCC’s decision to send the rarely used Peninsula Shield into Bahrain was not just about regaining control. It was a show of force that also sent a powerful message to opposition movements across the Gulf and the wider Arab world: The GCC’s way of rule was here to stay.
After all, if Bahrain’s government were to give in to the demands of the protestors – which at the very least involved economic and political reforms and at most, a constitutional monarchy – Saudi Arabia, Oman, and Kuwait may be forced to follow suit. Both Saudi Arabia and Oman offered their citizens generous cash bonuses and loans after opposition demonstrations broke out in those countries shortly after the fall of Mubarak in Egypt. These could be seen as a lucid expression of panic on the GCC’s part in response to the pro-democracy movement gaining momentum.
America ‘losing’ the Middle East
Analysts suggest that the entry of GCC troops into Bahraini territory on March 14 and its decision to strengthen itself on a massive scale has numerous other implications for the region.
“The decision to expand the army is of huge geo-military significance,” says Barak Seener, a Middle East research fellow with the Royal United Service Institute (RUSI) in London. “What we are seeing now is the militarisation of societies. One of which is to preserve the GCC’s own security from domestic unrest and the other to counter external insecurity from Iran. So the military build-up is two fold.
“Often there is no distinction made between the internal and external unrest because the GCC perceive unrest in Bahrain as not a legitimate request for democracy and freedom but manipulation from Iran.”
“It’s difficult to conclusively say to what degree Iran is behind the instability in Bahrain,” Seener continues. “Irrespective, however, there is no doubt that Iran would benefit from the turmoil there. Their anti-Westernism causes them to transcend the Sunni-Shia divide and it sees the Arab Spring as a way to exploit their own influence. It’s clear that America is increasingly losing the Middle East to Iran.”
Shashank Joshi, an analyst on international security and military affairs at Harvard University believes the GCC decisions to boost its military and to create new alliances with Jordan and Morocco, both of which have sizeable armies, are an effort to shift the stronghold of power in the region.
“The GCC expansion is only one piece in the overall picture of Saudi Arabia looking for a foreign policy alternative to the US,” he says. “The Gulf Cooperation Council itself is a vehicle for Saudi Arabian ambitions as it has the most sway in the region. The move is significant in that it reflects alignment in Saudi Arabian priorities – it’s diversifying its alliance portfolio.”
GCC analyst Dr Alfaraj agrees that plans to boost the Shield would send a strong message to the world of a newfound military strength in the region.
“Through the expanded army we are sending messages to our Arab alliances as well as to our western alliances. The international economic situation tells us that the US is not as reliable as it used to be because it’s already overextended in Afghanistan, North Korea and Iraq. So there is no force to send to us.”
America’s muted criticism towards the Bahraini government’s crackdown of protestors in March, he adds, was irrelevent.
“They were idle and couldn’t understand the situation. They looked at the situation in Bahrain and compared it to Egypt and Tunisia. It’s totally wrong because Tunisia, for example, does not export anything to the world – it’s a textiles and tourism state. Bahrain is next to the oil fields of all the oil members of the GCC.”
View from the ground
Whatever the motives are for a greater military presence in the region, one thing is clear – the government’s continued heavy-handedness in silencing dissidents is only hardening the protesters’ resolve. And sectarianism, something that both sides said they wanted to avoid, is on the rise – unsurprising perhaps in a country with a Shia population of 70 per cent but an exclusively Sunni military.
The complexity of the sectarian issue is reflective of the mixed feelings Bahraini’s hold towards the GCC troops. For Sarah Y Ashoor, a Shia from Sadad, a village in the western region of Bahrain, welcomed the arrival of the Peninsula Shield troops on March 14.
“As citizens we are glad the government has finally discovered the dire need for a military presence. We don’t take lightly any outside interference. People are calling it [the Saudi-led military presence] an invasion… but allies don’t invade each other. They support each other in times of need.
“It’s understandable with our population size that Saudi Arabia would be in power and militarily have the upper hand,” she adds. ” We look to the Saudis for help and leadership and their standing in the world as one of the largest exporters.
But Mohammad al Maskati, from the Bahrain National Youth Society, believes that a greater Peninsula Shield army and presence in Bahrain, would inflame Sunni-Shia tensions.
“This army would be a kind of sectarian shield because of what’s happened in Bahrain,” he said. “Some troops from the Shield specifically targeted Shias. Saudi Arabia would have to have an upper hand in controlling the whole state but this hand will not be direct – it will be through the army. Everyone knows the GCC shield is led by the Saudi’s so an army here would not be directed by the GCC, it would be led by Saudi Arabia.
“They say that the army is for unity [among GCC states] but then why is this army interfering in internal issues?” he adds. ” This only affects Bahraini people – why is Saudi Arabia interfering? It’s not like there’s a war against the state. It’s just Bahraini people asking and demanding their rights.”
For Mahmoud, a Shia who lives in a village near the capital Manama who did not want to give his real name, the arrival of the Gulf troops has meant continual intimidation, violence and threats.
“Even trying to move around in normal ways has become life-threatening,” he said. “My young brother, 15, was coming back from school one day, and the bus had been stopped at a checkpoint and the riot police entered.
“The officer had a Saudi accent and he asked the whole bus: ‘Which of you went to Lulu Square? You are Shia dogs, why is there no photo of King Hamad in the bus?’
“He asked the other officers to check the books of random students to see if the photo of King Hamad was there (all school books have his photo) and they found a number of students who ripped or damaged the photo.
They started to beat them up inside the bus and then arrested them. The same day I drove by the same checkpoint and saw four teenagers with their heads covered by bags lying on their stomachs at 2pm under the hot sun, with their shirts removed and getting random kicks by the officers.”
Mahmoud denies that Iran has infiltrated the opposition movement. “They say that we are spies for Iran, but nobody here wants to be ruled from Iran,” he says. “We are Shia, but we are also Arabs, not Persians. We do not want help from Iran. We want democracy in our own country.”
But in the eyes of the Gulf states, Iran and some elements of Bahrain’s Shia community are inextricably linked.
“We see the subversive attacks of Iran on us,” Dr Alfaraj asserts. “We see it and we are reacting to it…we are at open warfare.”