When Kuwaiti citizens enthusiastically celebrated their Golden Independence Anniversary last month together with twenty years of liberation after Saddam Hussein’s invasion and expulsion as well as the present Amir Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah being in power for five years (50-20-5) they might already have sensed that the awakening of the Arab world would finally also reach the tiny oil-rich country in the corner of the Arabian Persian Gulf. For a couple of weeks bedouns, or stateless people, have demonstrated for citizenship and civil rights. In several cases protests have brutally been cracked down by police. The Amir, as his counterpart in neighboring Saudi Arabia King Abdullah bin Abdul-Aziz, has tried to silence any open discontentment on missing basic civil rights in a rich society of mainly youngsters thirsting for liberty and freedom of speech by granting each citizen 1000 Kuwaiti Dinars ($3500) from his own pocket. The expatriate workforce mainly from South and Southeast Asia had largely been missed-out of the benefit, of course.
Kuwait is home of a Shi’a minority but ruled by the Sunni Sabah family for centuries. The case might be comparable with Bahrain which is ruled by the Sunni Al Khalifa family, but where Shi’ites comprise even the majority of the population.
In the aftermath of the still unsettled revolutions in Tunesia and Egypt and during riots even in the Yemen and
ongoing civil an upcoming war in Lybia after UN Security Council Resolution 1973 last night, largely unexpected protests had been seen on 14 February on the central Pearl Roundabout in Bahrain (now razed; another five were killed in new clashes with demonstrators). Although crowds were considerably smaller (the tiny island inhabits not more than 560,000 citizens, two thirds are Shi’ites) broadcast pictures resembled those on Tahrir square in Cairo a month earlier. Shockingly, riot police shot and killed five peaceful protesters on February 17, something which has not really led to an international outcry.
While western politicians had urged King Hamad ibn Issa Al Khalifa to immediately implement reforms, it is obvious that in particular the United States fears most an overthrow of the ruling family and the installment of a Shi’a dominated regime which may be friendlier with or even influenced by Iran. Bahrain is home of the U.S. Fifth Fleet and there are concerns that in particular the neighboring arch foe could benefit most if the revolutionary situation in Bahrain could not come under rapid control which has not happened so far.
Only 48 hours after a surprise visit of Secretary of Defense Robert Gates in Bahrain’s Capital Manama on March 12, the King welcomed about 1000 troops from Saudi Arabia and 500 from the United Arab Emirates for support and to intimidate the protesters. Whether Qatar and Oman, even Kuwait (all members of the Gulf Cooperation Council) would also send troops isn’t clear so far. They called it a declaration of war. The king declared martial law for three months.
It is still not clear which advice Gates had given Al Khalifa, but giving a green light for inviting foreign troops is most likely. The White House has, in the meantime, at least admitted that it was aware of the invitation of Saudi Arabian troops, as Press Secretary Jay Carney put it the day before yesterday in a press conference. Asked, “What does it say about the state of U.S.-Saudi relations that they would stage this intervention in Bahrain without telling the U.S., given the fact that Secretary Gates was there, I guess, Friday, and you’ve been very engaged in this whole issue about what Bahrain should do to reform and stop the violence?” he responded,
“[…] I would just say that we were aware of obviously the invitation by the Bahrain government for assistance from GCC countries. And I would simply say that Saudi Arabia is an important partner of ours, as are other countries in the region. Our position, however, remains that […] military response is not a solution to the problems Bahrain or other countries in the region; that the countries in the region […] are experiencing the unrest that they are experiencing precisely because their populations […] crave [for] more participation in the political process. They want more freedom, they want more economic possibilities, and they want to be heard.”
Well said, but probably highly hypocritical. Shi’ites in southern Iraq and even in eastern provinces of Saudia Arabia are already protesting. What is amazing is that several thousand Kuwaitis and Bahrainis gathered yesterday at the ‘Change Square’ in front of the Cabinet building demonstrating solidarity with the people of Bahrain. Kuwait’s government has today decided not to send own forces to Bahrain. Painful and lasting reminiscence of having been invaded by a neighboring country may be too strong in the country.
Anyway, Al Khalifa’s call for help might have been highly counterproductive.
Picture Bahrain, Andreas Gursky 2005.
Last modified March 19, 2011.