Saudi flexes Gulf grip with Bahrain 'union' plans
DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — During a sermon last week at Bahrain's Grand Mosque, the pro-government prayer leader offered sweeping praise for one of the Arab Spring's counter-revolutions: Gulf rulers bonding together against dissent with powerful Saudi Arabia as their main guardian.
The widening Saudi security stamp on the region is already taking shape in Bahrain, where more than a year of Shiite-led unrest shows no sign of easing and the Saudi influence over the embattled Sunni monarchy is on public display.
Portraits of the Saudi King Abdullah — some showing him praying — dot the airport in Bahrain's capital Manama. Bahrain's red-and-white flag and the green Saudi colors are arranged with crossed staffs. State media continually lauds the Saudi-led military force that rolled into Bahrain last year as reinforcements against the uprising by the kingdom's Shiite majority.
"Gulf union is a long-awaited dream," said Sheik Fareed al-Meftah at Friday prayers in Manama's main Sunni mosque, referring to proposals to coordinate defense affairs and other policies among the six members of the Gulf Cooperation Council stretching from Kuwait to Oman.
"The first step is here," al-Meftah added.
Abdullah and Bahrain's king, Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, have met to discuss "union" plans, which are expected to be outlined in May. For the moment, few details have emerged. Gulf leaders have stressed the need for greater intelligence and military cooperation. It's unclear, however, how deeply Bahrain and Saudi Arabia will attempt to merge in the first steps.
The increasingly blurred national lines in Bahrain are a possible sneak preview of the wider Arab Spring backlash in the oil-rich Gulf, where Saudi power seeks to safeguard the region's Sunni leadership and its strong opposition to possible attempts by Shiite giant Iran to expand influence. Meanwhile, Gulf rulers have selectively endorsed rebellions elsewhere, such as in Libya and Syria.
So far, the Gulf agenda has dovetailed with Western partners, which unleashed NATO-led airstrikes against Moammar Gadhafi's regime in Libya and are showing increasing support for possible aid to the rebels trying to topple Syrian President Bashar Assad — Iran's key Arab ally.
But Bahrain brings the potential for friction.
Washington has stood behind Bahrain's dynasty for strategic reasons as hosts of the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet, which is a pillar of the Pentagon's frontline forces against Iran. Yet rights groups and others have increased pressure in the U.S. and Europe to scale back support for Bahrain's rulers, who are struggling against a Shiite majority claiming it faces widespread discrimination and second-class status.
There are no signs of any significant Western reduction in support for Bahrain's dynasty, but the quandaries highlight how the tiny island kingdom has the potential to open rifts between the West and crucial ally Saudi Arabia.
"Bahrain can be looked at as something of a Saudi colony now in the sense that policies are merged," said Toby Jones, an expert on Bahraini affairs at Rutgers University. "But this is more than just a meeting of minds. It's motivated by the fears of the Arab Spring."
While there have been some rumblings of opposition — including protests in Shiite pockets in Saudi Arabia — nothing in the Gulf region has come close to Bahrain's upheaval. More than 45 people have died in the unrest, which includes near daily street clashes that include tear gas from security forces and firebombs from demonstrators. Some rights groups place the death toll above 60.
There have been no confirmed reports of Saudi soldiers directly involved in the crackdowns. But the troops in Bahrain have protected key sites, such as power plants, to free up local police. The military intervention also send a broad message that Saudi considers Bahrain a line that can't be crossed.
Gulf Arab leaders repeatedly claim that Iran is pulling the strings behind Bahrain's Shiite protests, although no clear evidence has been produced to support the allegations. The Gulf bloc fears the fall of Bahrain's 200-year-old Sunni dynasty would give Iran a beachhead in their midst.
Last month, Saudi's King Abdullah claimed "unnamed hands" were behind the upheavals in Bahrain and other unrest against Sunni leaders in the Arab world. Abdullah did not specifically cite Iran, but similar terms have been used by Saudi officials and others in the six-member Gulf Cooperation Council, which includes Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, Oman and the United Arab Emirates.
The Saudi defense minister, in an interview published Sunday in the Kuwaiti newspaper Al-Seyassah, called the regional security force, known as the Peninsula Shield, the " nucleus" of protection against any threats to the Gulf states.
"Iran is our neighbor, but we draw a line when it comes to intervention in our internal affairs," Prince Salman bin Abdul Aziz was quoted as saying. "Whenever we feel that anybody is interfering in our internal affairs, through internal mercenaries or people from outside, we will resist it appropriately."
A Bahrain-based economic researcher, Jassim Hussain, said a Gulf union could involve more unified economic help from the super-rich Saudi Arabia to prop up Bahrain, whose role as a regional financial hub has taken a sharp blow from the unrest. In a rare boost for Bahrain's economy in the past year, Saudi Arabia's Prince Alwaleed bin Talal selected Manama in December as the base for a 24-hour news channel, Alarab.
"Bahrain's rulers have always been dependent on the generosity of Saudi Arabia," said Simon Henderson, a Gulf analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "It's all part of the larger story — the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran for regional power."
Shiite groups in Bahrain, however, were wary that the planned union would leave Saudi Arabia the de facto ruler and further tighten crackdowns on the opposition.
"We welcome the idea of closer Gulf union if the people of nations approve it," said Sheik Ali Salman, head the largest Shiite political group, Al Wefaq. "But if the purpose is just to turn Bahrain into an emirate of Saudi Arabia, then it will not be accepted and it will be disastrous."
Associated Press writers Adam Schreck and Barbara Surk contributed to this report.