Every few years, the Saudi government proposes to remake the Gulf Cooperation Council by replacing it with a federation; in a way, a United States of Arabia. The proposals have never gone anywhere. Saudi Arabia is the big kid on the block and the neighborhood bully: No one wants to be second fiddle to the Saudis, nor do citizens of the Persian Gulf emirates want to sacrifice their freedoms to conform to the Saudi way of life.
That’s all changing now, as Bahrain and Saudi Arabia move forward with economic and social union. The reason is largely sectarian: The Shi’ites are the majority in Bahrain, and protests have evolved to the point where the Sunni-led royal family is no longer able to make the reforms Shi’ite political leaders demand. By joining a confederation, the Bahraini royal family can purchase further Saudi largesse and involve Saudi forces even more directly in quashing unrest.
The move is short-sighted, however. Not only may it change the comparatively liberal character for which Bahrain is known, at least relative to the other Persian Gulf states, but it will also hasten the spread of sectarian unrest into Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia is, after all, an artificial country. (Like “Petoria” in the television show “Family Guy,” any country is artificial when it’s named after a person). The Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia is overwhelmingly Shi’ite, and quite resentful of Wahhabi rule.
Western journalists and human rights activists condemn the Bahraini government repeatedly for its crackdown because, despite Bahraini efforts to restrict access, Bahrain is a far freer society than Saudi Arabia, and so observers can witness the clashes between the government and opposition (as I did in February). Also, major organizations like Human Rights Watch may be loathe to condemn Saudi authorities, because they solicit money from the Saudis and so may compromise their integrity to pay their bills. While Bahraini security forces are relatively restrained – using mostly rubber bullets and tear gas – in the absence of international presence and attention Saudi forces have no such self-restraint, and favor live ammunition. After confederation, however, Bahraini Shi’ites will not waste a day before beginning to export their “best practices” to their Saudi Shi’ite brethren.
Other American allies in the region will also begin to feel pressure to choose sides. During a recent trip to Kuwait, Kuwaitis explained it to me like this: Traditionally, countries like Kuwait and Qatar have survived by playing the two regional giants—Saudi Arabia and Iran—off each other. By forming a federation with Saudi Arabia, the emirates and kingdoms transform themselves into the designated space for proxy war. After all, if Bahrain becomes in effect Saudi, then the easiest place to target the Saudis is in Bahrain.
And while many elite foreign policy and military officials cultivate close relations with the Saudis, the Kingdom is far from a good ally. That Saudis formed the bulk of the 9/11 plot was not an accident; it was a direct result of the Saudi education system. And, when the going got tough, the Saudis kicked most American forces out of the country—something they might get tempted to do if they were to absorb Bahrain or Kuwait.
The best way forward for Bahrain is not confederation with Saudi Arabia, nor is it arms packages for anything else than defending the tiny island Kingdom from the Iranian threat. Rather, the course for U.S. policy would be to encourage quick and meaningful reform, and uncompromised Bahraini independence.