Unlike Omani representatives, Bahraini officials welcomed Saudi King Abdullah Bin Abdul Aziz’s call to update the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) alliance into a full-fledged union, perceiving that only such an evolutionary mechanism may preserve the monarchy in the island kingdom.
Manama reacted positively to concrete initiatives proposed by the GCC advisory summit that met on May 5, this year, though disagreements surfaced within the organisation, chiefly from the Sultanate of Oman.
Bahrain adopted a diametrically opposed view, perceiving Iran as an existential threat, further motivated by the ongoing uprising that started in the spring of 2011. Towards that end, and aware that its meager capabilities were nowhere sufficient to prevent a putative Iranian assault, or even a Tehran-inspired coup attempt, Manama supported several security umbrellas, ranging the gamut from the GCC to a significant American presence.
For Bahrain, the request for a token GCC unified military force, which saw the deployment of Saudi and Emirati forces on the island starting on March 14, 2011, was a necessity. Still, Manama concluded that the substantive force that would be required to preserve the kingdom’s security and stability, would have to be western, especially American. In fact, it was not a mere coincidence that the US 5th Fleet was headquartered in Manama, a presence that created internal tensions among the country’s Shiite population.
It must be emphasized that Bahrain’s alliance choices in the past were largely based on the preservation of the status quo to ensure regional stability, although the kingdom consistently sought to reinforce regional parity through both balance of power as well as deep-deterrence strategies, to contain its putative foe.
Manama concluded that Iran was reaching for regional hegemony and that it openly sponsored subversion in Bahrain. Despite various pleas, before and after 1979, Manama noted the frequency of clandestine Iranian activities, and pointed out to Tehran’s nuclear programme that allegedly transformed it into an intransigent state. Moreover, Manama accused Tehran of encouraging and financially supporting Shiite demonstrations in the country, whose many objectives included regime change.
Given its apprehensions, Bahrain redefined its national security agenda, and sought to enhance its regional integration through the GCC, which was the primary reason why it called on the alliance to deploy military forces under the aegis of the Darah Al Jazira in 2011.
Nevertheless, it remained to be determined whether the creation of a more robust GCC military force was in the cards, although Bahrain favoured the evolution of the GCC into a confederation that would further empower the alliance to act in similar instances.
Despite the confluence of interests between Bahrain and its GCC partners, the former was unwilling to solely depend on the alliance for its security requirements, which also posed a dilemma for Riyadh.
Instead, and in addition to substantial Western relationships, Manama hedged its bets through the development of a peripheral balancing mechanism, which was weaved around a string of loose, bilateral alliances based on the mutual interest of curtailing Iran’s hegemony. Remarkably, Bahrain — and, one could make the argument that the GCC as a whole — looked to India and Turkey to strengthen secondary security conditions.
Bahrain’s ties with India, in particular, illustrated what the small country envisaged. Notwithstanding the lack of any territorial contiguity, India was a nascent regional power, steadily improving its political and economic advantages throughout the Gulf region. Not only was New Delhi confident that Bahrain and its GCC partners — which hosted an estimated five million Indian expatriate workers throughout the six countries — could benefit from the first vestiges of regional polarity, but it also underscored its readiness to provide security assistance on a need to basis.
Towards that end, Indian naval and air force units visited Manama and other GCC capitals on a frequent basis, exchanging expertise and, more important, familiarising its officers with their Gulf counterparts.
In turn, this emerging polarity attracted both Iran, which depended on hydrocarbon sales to India now that the United States and the European Union imposed strict sanctions — and all GCC states. Indeed, India has shown a willingness to favour GCC countries, not only because of its large national population’s presence, but also because of its own global ambitions.
Naturally, and to better address its intrinsic political storms, Bahrain embarked on a long-term economic platform that emphasised growth and economic stability for the dual goals of preserving its attractiveness for its alliance partners, while retaining the means necessary to politically reform the kingdom.
What was unclear was whether Bahrain’s leadership actually sought to fully eliminate any wealth disparities between Sunni and Shiite citizens, so as to deny would be detractors of their sectarian discourses and to expose the true engines of social unrest in the country.
Under the circumstances, it was fair to ask whether the GCC military intervention in Bahrain was a paradigm of potential GCC ‘deployments’ to maintain the status quo? Indeed, the GCC supported the Al Khalifa ruling family as the latter confronted an internal uprising allegedly fuelled by Iran, because it could not jeopardise the unity of the organisation.
Importantly, the decision on the proposed union, which could come as early as December 2012 when GCC heads of state gather for their annual summit in Manama, also reflected Bahraini expectations.
This is the third in the series of articles discussing union from each GCC member-state perspective to be published every Sunday.