By Jane Kinninmont

Every country in the Middle East is being affected in some way by the wave of Arab unrest. The oil-rich Gulf monarchies are no exception.

The Gulf governments are determined to send a message that the 'domino effect' will not extend to their own countries. They are making a particular show of force in the tiny island of Bahrain, where Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) troops were deployed in March as the government cracked down on an uprising. But Bahrain's internal problems will not be solved militarily, and the intervention of Sunni troops from overseas in a Shi'a majority country will add to sectarian tensions in the wider Middle East.

February and March have seen a dramatic escalation of violence and sectarianism in Bahrain, a tiny yet strategically important country normally known as a tolerant and cosmopolitan place. Political tensions have been brewing there for years and the country has a decades-long history of protests for greater popular representation. Ultimately, the country faces a local dispute over the sharing of political power and the distribution of wealth. These issues are resolvable. However, they are complicated by the use and abuse of identity politics: Bahrain's ruling family, the Al Khalifa, is Sunni, while most of the population are Shi'a. There are great fears of foreign powers - mainly Iran and Saudi Arabia - exploiting Bahrain's local issues in a proxy conflict driven by their wider regional and religious rivalry.

The Bahraini protestors that took to the streets in mid-February were calling for political and economic reform, not for an Islamic revolution. But after a heavy-handed response in which police and the military shot several protestors dead, the movement became increasingly radical and three opposition groups have called for the overthrow of the ruling Al Khalifa family, which is Sunni. As of mid-March, 23 people had been killed, mostly protestors but also security forces and innocent bystanders; hundreds more were injured and doctors claimed to have been prevented from treating many of them.

Sectarian Worries

The political divisions in Bahrain have never been a simple split along sectarian lines, but the country is increasingly heading that way. The shadow of the broader regional rivalry between Shi'a Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia has added to the stakes in Bahrain. To generalise, many Sunnis fear that what the west sees as pro-democracy protestors are pro-Iranian activists bent on ultimately establishing a theocracy. Many Sunnis were alienated by the calls for the overthrow of the AlKhalifa and some resigned from opposition groups. Meanwhile, a brutal military crackdown on Shi'a villages, and the arrival of troops from Saudi Arabia - which marginalises its own Shi'a minority and which fought a Shi'a uprising in Yemen in 2009 - have encouraged many Shi'a to think there is a sectarian, not political, crackdown against them.

These fears have upped the stakes and are driving increasing numbers of Bahrainis - usually tolerant and well educated - into frightened and defensive sectarian communities. A darker side of the social media, which has been so much praised for its role in helping the Egyptian and Tunisian opposition to organise, is evident as Bahrainis vent sectarian spleen on Twitter or circulate graphic photos of the dead on Facebook. Moderates have been attacked. Notably Ebrahim Sharif, the Sunni leader of a liberal political group, Wa'ad, that has consistently campaigned against sectarianism, was arrested by forty plain clothesmen in the middle of the night and taken to a secret location, as part of a broader roundup of opposition leaders that supported protests. These terrors will not be easily resolved by rational political dialogue.

There is much speculation that the Gulf forces are there to bolster the more hawkish Al Khalifas, like the prime minister, Sheikh Khalifa, against the family's reformists, like the Crown Prince, Sheikh Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa. One of the protestors' key demands is that the prime minister step down this year after forty years in office, to be replaced with someone elected. Just before the Gulf troop deployment was announced, the crown prince said he was willing to discuss all the opposition's demands in a wide-ranging dialogue. "I don't believe it's a message to Iran, but to all the Gulf people, to tell them this is what you get if you ask for democracy," says one Bahraini banker. Kuwait, the most democratic of the Gulf monarchies, saw a heated debate over the deployment of troops. but ultimately decided to participate.

For its part, Iran said Bahrain should not crack down on peaceful protestors, just after it cracked down on its own peaceful protestors. Bahrain said Iran's comments were foreign interference, and recalled its ambassador to Tehran. Saudi Arabia also denounced foreign intervention in Bahrain, just before sending one thousand troops in.

Bahrain's most popular political party, Al-Wefaq, led by a Shi'a cleric, Sheikh Ali Salman, has called the deployment an invasion, and many of their supporters wonder if the Saudis will prove hard to dislodge. Bahrain has long depended on Saudi financial support, and this dependence is only likely to increase as foreign investors and tourists are scared away from a country that, until recently, advertised itself internationally as a haven of liberalism.

Elsewhere In The Gulf

Small numbers of protestors were shot dead in Oman and in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia in February and March. Oman's Sultan Qaboos responded with a sweeping cabinet reshuffle and a decision to give more powers to the country's parliament. So far, Saudi Arabia has announced a raft of new public-spending plans but no political reforms. A planned 'day of rage' across the country on March 11 saw few protestors turn out, though large numbers of police were deployed in major cities and clerics warned that protests were un-Islamic.

To put this in the wider context of the region, the uprisings that overthrew the Tunisian and Egyptian presidents earlier this year have inspired opposition groups in every Arab country, and have alarmed the region's established governments. But each country is different. The extent of the 'Egypt effect' will depend on a number of country-specific factors. These include the extent to which the opposition can mobilise, agree on demands and stay united; the ability of the security services to deter, pre-empt or contain unrest without simply inflaming opposition further; and the extent to which governments are able and willing to reform their systems and accommodate opposition demands.

Handout Time

In the Gulf, there are many steps that could be taken to strengthen democratic participation and pluralism within the existing systems. Instead, most governments have focused on their traditional tools of generous public-spending handouts, combined with repression and propaganda. These moves imply that the Gulf governments view the Arab world's protests as fundamentally driven by economic grievances such as unemployment. Indeed, in the United Arab Emirates and Qatar, two of the world's wealthiest countries, the combination of a lavish welfare state, tiny populations (made up mostly of expatriates) and the easy availability of well-paid government jobs means there is scant political opposition. But even there, there are some calling for elected parliament and more say in how the economies are managed.

In other areas of the region, critics call for action to tackle corruption, nepotism and the lack of meritocracy or rule of law. In Saudi Arabia and Bahrain in particular, there are calls for greater political rights, an end to torture and the freeing of prisoners of conscience.

Western governments are calling for political reforms, but the Gulf countries appear confident that they can count on the United States and British support regardless, especially with the oil price so high and with the tragic developments in Japan dealing a major blow to the nuclear alternative. Prior to this year's crackdown, Bahrain was repeatedly singled out for praise by the US and Britain for its limited democratic reforms, though in fact these reforms had already been stagnating for some years. Britain has revoked licences for British companies to export arms to Bahrain but it remains to be seen whether the broader relationship is going to change as a result of the crackdown.

(Jane Kinninmont is the Senior Research Fellow for the Middle East and North Africa Programme at Chatham House and author of a forthcoming book on Bahrain.)


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