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Bahrain’s Reckoning

Posted By Frank Crimi On March 15, 2011 @ 12:07 am In Daily Mailer,FrontPage | 5 Comments

The small, but strategically significant kingdom of Bahrain moved one step closer toward complete civil anarchy when thousands of anti-government protesters clashed with security forces in what was the fiercest confrontation to date between the ruling monarchy and opposition groups. The encounter also led neighboring Gulf states to send military troops into Bahrain in an effort to help restore order.

Over the weekend thousands of protesters in the capital of Manama took control of the main highway into the city’s financial district before they were dispersed with tear gas launched from government security forces.

However, Bahraini authorities were not as successful when–using a combination of tear gas and rubber bullets–they tried to dislodge demonstrators from their tent compound in Pearl Square, the focal point of the protest movement since it began one month ago.

While government officials pledged that “the right to security and safety is above all else,” they also grimly warned that the escalation in civil disorder had placed the nation’s “social fabric” in serious jeopardy.

If protesters did not understand the warning, Bahrain’s neighbors certainly did. One day after the violent encounters, a contingent of military troops were sent into Bahrain by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), a six-nation group whose members are Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman and the United Arab Emirates. The role of the estimated force of 1,000 GCC soldiers was reportedly to protect key buildings, roadways, and oil facilities in the kingdom.

The GCC deployment highlighted how profoundly concerned Gulf leaders have become over Bahrain’s escalating internal unrest and the threat it poses to their own rule. With large Shiite populations themselves, they fear any crack in Bahrain’s ruling system could embolden other challenges to the family dynasties that hold power throughout the region.

However, the GCC deployment also brought harsh rebuke from Bahrain’s opposition groups who called it “an occupation and a conspiracy against the people of Bahrain.”

These latest events had been preceded only days earlier by a call from a coalition of intransigent Bahraini Shiite groups for an end to the reign of Bahrain’s Sunni royal family and the establishment of a republic in its place.

Three Shiite groups—Haq, Wafa and the Bahrain Freedom Movement—calling themselves the “Coalition for a Bahraini Republic,” wrote in a joint statement: “This tripartite coalition adopts the choice of bringing down the existing regime in Bahrain and the establishment of a democratic republican system.”

Included in the coalition is the popular Shiite leader of Haq, Hassan Mushaima, who, upon his recent return from self-imposed exile in England, initially had hinted he would be in favor of a settlement with the ruling al-Khalifa regime. However, Mushaima has now appeared to place the fate of the royal family into the hands of the people in Bahrain’s growing anti-monarchial movement.

Saying he would support the ouster of the monarchy if that was the wishes of the protesters, Mushaima declared: “Our demands will be what the street demands. We can’t impose any demands on the street — not me or any leader of the opposition. It’s the people protesting on the streets who will unite with demands.”

Those demands come chiefly from Bahraini Shiites, who make up over 70 percent of the kingdom’s population. They are rebelling over what they say is long-term discrimination at the hands of the ruling Sunni minority, policies which include granting citizenship and employment preferences to Sunnis from other Sunni Arab countries.

Moreover, public furor has also been directed at the excessive wealth of the ruling family. In particular, opposition groups claim that dozens of projects developed by the ruling family and private developers have exploited what should have been public land, but was instead used to transfer billions of dollars to royal family coffers.

As a result, the al-Khalifa regime has been trying of late to make amends to quell the uprising and avoid meeting the same fate as some of their Arab compatriots over the past several months. So, with what some may say is arriving at the game a little late, the monarchy has announced a series of economic and political initiatives designed to appease public anger.

On February 22, King Hamad ordered the release of 23 Shiite activists held on terrorism charges and pardoned two others in exile, including opposition Haq leader Hassan Mushaima. On February 26, taking a page from the handbook of other besieged Arab rulers, King Hamad sacked five of his Cabinet ministers.

On March 5, following directives from King Hamad to boost employment in all ministry departments, Bahrain’s Interior Minister, Sheikh Rashed bin Abdullah al-Khalifa, announced a government plan to recruit 20,000 employees. Two days later, Bahrain’s Housing Minister, Majid al-Alawi, announced government plans to build 50,000 homes at a cost of $5.32 billion.

Unfortunately, the various moves have failed to achieve the effect the royal family had intended. In fact, for the protesters, the call for change has only increased. As summed up by one man: “We won’t go until they all leave.”

So, with no abatement in the calls for its ouster, the al-Khalifa regime, along now with other Sunni-ruled Gulf states, has seemingly opted to take a more hard line approach to the uprising.

In fact, Saudi Arabia’s royal family had been moving very aggressively in the past several weeks to exert pressure on the al-Khalifa regime to crackdown hard on the protest movement. If not, as one Mideast analyst prophetically predicted before the entrance of the GCC force, “Then the King of Saudi Arabia is going to intervene, himself, with his security forces.”

Still, while the Saudis have alternately threatened and bolstered the Bahraini royal family, it hasn’t been taking any chances with its own Shiite population. On March 4, the Saudis arrested 20 people who had called for a constitutional monarchy and a war against corruption.

Following that episode, the Saudis then banned all public protests by saying that “regulations in the kingdom forbid categorically all sorts of demonstrations, marches and sit-ins, as they contradict Islamic Sharia law and the values and traditions of Saudi society.”

Yet, despite that dictate, Saudi’s Shiite population apparently didn’t get the message. On March 10, in the mostly Shiite city of Qatif in eastern Saudi Arabia, several hundred protesters took to the street before being dispersed by Saudi police using rubber bullets and stun grenades.

Of course, in addition to the Saudis, both the United States and Iran have a keen interest in how events unfold in Bahrain. As home to its Fifth Fleet, Bahrain remains to the United States a crucial counterweight to growing Iranian hegemony. A fall by Bahrain to a Shiite majority may place that American role in jeopardy.

While such a scenario would still leave the United States with substantial air and naval assets in the region, its military presence would continue to dwindle as it prepares to withdraw the remaining 50,000 of its troops from Iraq by December 2011. That means Iran will have the largest and most powerful military force in the region, regardless of whether they acquire nuclear weapons.

For Saudi and Gulf state rulers, the specter of an unassailable Iran is a genuinely frightening prospect. However, the sudden end to their centuries-old dynastic rule may be more terrifying. While that question may be a source for debate, the entrance of the GCC force into Bahrain certainly makes a compelling case for the latter point.

Frank Crimi is a writer living in San Diego, California. You can read more of Frank’s work at his blog, www.politicallyunbalanced.com.

 


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