2011 has not gotten off to a good start for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Tunisia may be on the Arab world’s periphery, but Egypt has been at the Middle East’s center of gravity for decades.
It is clear that Saudi leaders were deeply disturbed by what they interpret as the Obama Administration’s abandonment of Hosni Mubarak, a long-time U.S. ally. And now, the Arab “wave” is breaking much closer to home.
It looks increasingly like Bahrain will be the next arena for significant political contestation and change in an Arab state. How long the status quo could hold in Bahrain—with a Shi’a-majority population but a Sunni ruling family and political establishment—has always been a salient question, but now it is really coming to a head.
We thought that Graham Fuller’s Op Ed in the International Herald Tribune today provided a wealth of important insights about what is going on in Bahrain, what it means for Saudi Arabia, and what it means for the shifting balance of power in the Persian Gulf. Below are excerpts and it can be read in its entirety, here.
“Where’s the next place to blow in the Arab revolution? Candidates are many, but there’s one whose geopolitical impact vastly exceeds its diminutive size — the island of Bahrain.
This is a place run by an oppressive and corrupt little regime, long coddled by Washington because the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet is headquartered there. The future of the base is far from secure if the regime falls.
A few hard facts about the island that should give pause for thought:
First, Bahrain is a Shiite island. You won’t see it described that way, but it is — 70 percent of the population, more than the percentage of Shiites in Iraq. And like Iraq under Saddam Hussein, these Arab Shiites have been systematically discriminated against, repressed, and denied meaningful roles by a Sunni tribal government determined to maintain its solid grip on the country. The emergence of real democracy, as in Iraq, will push the country over into the Shiite column — sending shivers down the spines of other Gulf rulers, and especially in Riyadh…
If you look behind the Western and elite-populated high-rises you’ll encounter the Shiite ghettoes — poor and neglected, with high unemployment, walls smeared with anti-regime graffiti.
Free market? Sure, except the regime imports politically neutered laborers from passive, apolitical states that need the money: Filipinos, Bangladeshis, Sri Lankans and other South Asians who won’t make waves or they’re on the next plane out.
The regime also imports its thugs. The ranks of the police are heavily staffed with expat police who often speak no Arabic, have no attachments to the country and who will beat, jail, torture and shoot Bahraini protestors with impunity.
Like other Shiite populations, clerics figure heavily among the leaders.
But many are liberal and open, reflecting the culturally open character of the island. Most Bahraini Shiites would look to Ayatollah Sistani in Iraq rather than to Iran for religious guidance.
Typically, however, just like most other tyrants across the region, the al-Khalifa regime in Bahrain will whip up anti-Shiite, anti-Iranian fears to gain Western backing — and they usually get it.
It’s not just that the majority is Shiite. From a Saudi perspective, the Bahraini Shiites maintain close family and cultural ties with Shiite families across the water in Saudi Arabia. The Saudi Shiite minority, probably even more oppressed, is already restive and would be responsive to Shiite political unrest nearby. This is Riyadh’s ultimate nightmare — a further strengthening of Shiite political power in this oil-rich region.
The Sunni minority of Bahrain is in a difficult position. The Sunnis worry about the rise of the Shiite majority that makes up the oppressed class.
But liberal Sunnis are also highly discontent with the al-Khalifa regime and seek political reform. Many work with the Shiite leadership to attain secular reforms, but the regime has repressed them as well and fans fear of Shiites to help keep them in line…
Washington is now faced again with another hard choice — the legacy of shortsighted decisions made over decades: Continue to go with local repressive regimes out of a misguided sense of “American interests”? Hold on to unpopular military bases at all costs — thereby deepening local anger and perhaps giving Iran ultimately a greater voice in events?
Or should it quietly drop support for this repressive regime, allow events to take their course and accept that long-overdue change is coming? How long can we hold on to another ugly status quo? It’s really about how bad the change will get the longer we wait.”
–Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett