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A Jittery GCC

Bahrain and the "Freedom Contagion"

by RANNIE AMIRI

“Saudi Arabia did not build a causeway to Bahrain just so that Saudis could party on weekends. It was designed for moments like this, for keeping Bahrain under control.”

– Dr. Toby Jones, expert on Saudi Arabia at Rutgers University

If Saudi Arabia was rattled by the fall of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, they will be in convulsions should Bahrain’s monarchy collapse. By all indications, the five other member nations of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) (Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates) will go to all lengths to prevent it.

The Arab world’s “freedom contagion” is rapidly spreading. Bahrain’s revolt is being spearheaded by the country’s poor, disenfranchised Shia Muslim majority. Although Mubarak was deposed by a nation of 80 million, unrest in the tiny island kingdom of only 530,000 citizens poses a greater ostensible threat to the GCC, particularly Saudi Arabia and its own sizable, restive Shia minority.

While many turned to the Qatar-based Al-Jazeera television network for coverage of the Tunisian, Egyptian—and now Libyan—revolutions, scant coverage was accorded to Bahrain, even when unarmed, peaceful protestors were being gunned down on the streets of the capital just a day after sleeping protestors in Pearl Square were savagely attacked by the regime’s security forces.

Should other Shia, like those in Saudi Arabia’s oil-rich Eastern Province (where they form a majority), become “infected” with the idea of taking to the streets to peacefully demand political reforms and representation, civil rights, and freedom of religion and assembly, other citizens might do likewise.

This explains why King Abdullah, who returned from Morocco on Wednesday after a prolonged 3-month convalescence from back surgery, announced he will lavish $37 billion in benefits on Saudis in the form of pay raises, unemployment benefits, debt forgiveness and housing subsidies.

Among those who first greeted Abdullah upon his arrival was the very one counting on the aging Saudi monarch for the survival of his regime—Bahrain’s king, Sheikh Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa. In a bid to placate Bahraini Shias, Sheikh Hamad released 100 political prisoners from Manama’s prisons prior to leaving for Riyadh, including the 25 activists charged last year with plotting against the state.

Saudi Arabia has sustained resource-poor Bahrain with a steady cash inflow for years and it wasted no time in issuing a statement saying it would stand by the monarchy “with all capabilities.” It had always justified doing so by framing Bahrain as an alleged bulwark against perceived encroaching Iranian influence, but today it is to help insulate Saudi Arabia from experiencing similar events along its eastern border and beyond. The emir of Kuwait added that “the security of Bahrain is the security of the region.” Last Tuesday, as tanks were rolling into Pearl Square, GCC foreign ministers met in Manama to reaffirm their solidarity with al-Khalifa rule.

Exactly one week later, Bahrain witnessed the largest anti-regime protests to be staged since the revolt began: 100,000 people strong—one-fifth of all nationals—turned out in massive, peaceful demonstrations along the highway leading into Pearl Square.

“This is the first time in the history of Bahrain that the majority of people, of Bahraini people, got together with one message: this regime must fall,” said one.

As the al-Khalifa regime’s brutality escalated, so did protestors’ demands. Initially it was for Khalifa bin Salman al-Khalifa, the king’s uncle and four-decade-old prime minister, to step down. Then came calls for Bahrain to transform itself into a legitimate constitutional monarchy. Now, many say the monarchy itself must be abolished. 

So how influential has Bahrain’s uprising been?

Small protests have broken out in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province. Saudi troops have already starting heading that way.

RANNIE AMIRI is an independent Middle East commentator.