Will the House of Saud Be the Next to Go Down?
Here's a crash course on how one of "our" - monarchic - dictators treats his own people during the great 2011 Arab revolt.
The king of Bahrain, Hamad al-Khalifa, has blood on his hands after his mercenary security forces - Pakistani, Indian, Syrian and Jordanian - with no previous warning, attacked sleeping, peaceful protesters at 3 am on Thursday at the Pearl roundabout, the tiny Gulf country's version of Cairo's Tahrir Square.
In the brutal crackdown, at least five people have been killed - including a young child - and 2,000 injured, some by gunshots, two of these in critical condition. Riot police targeted doctors and medics and prevented ambulances and blood donors from reaching the Pearl roundabout. A doctor at Salmaniya hospital told al-Jazeera there was a refrigerated truck outside the hospital, which he fears the army has used to remove more dead bodies.
The resourceful Maryama Alkawaka of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights was there; "It was very violent, [the police] were not showing any mercy." An avalanche of tweets from Bahrainis denounced an "Israeli-style" sneak attack and shoot-to-kill approach. And many have denounced al-Jazeera for not having kept a live satellite link as it had in Cairo, and for implying that this was only a Shi'ite protest. The Pearl roundabout is now surrounded by nearly 100 tanks at every entrance and exit. Downtown Manama has been turned into a ghost city.
The Shi'ite opposition described it as "real terrorism". Reem Khalifa, senor editor at the opposition newspaper al-Wasat, said, "The regime forces just came and massacred a crowd of people as they slept." They had been "chanting together, shouting 'neither Sunni nor Shi'ite but Bahraini'. We have not seen this before. And this is what annoyed the government agents the most - they are always trying to divide the people ... And now the regime is spreading lies about me and other journalists who are trying to say what is happening."
Khalifa had the courage to stand up and harshly confront Bahrain's foreign minister at a press conference, totally debunking his version of events (he called the deaths "regrettable" but insisted protesters were sectarian, and armed).
The Gulf Cooperation Council - the scandalously wealthy club of local kingdoms which holds over US$1 trillion stashed away in foreign reserves and almost 50% of the world's proven oil reserves still underground - issued, what else, a bland statement supporting Bahrain.
Kill them, but with a velvet glove
Is Washington remotely outraged by all this? The record speaks for itself. United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton expressed "deep concern", according to the State Department, and "urged restraint". The Pentagon said Bahrain was "an important partner"; later Secretary of Defense Robert Gates called Bahrain's Crown Prince Salman - certainly to make sure everything was dandy with the US Navy's 5th Fleet and its 2,250 personnel housed in an isolated compound inside 24 hectares in the center of Manama.
Even the New York Times was forced to acknowledge that US President Barack Obama had "yet to issue the blunt public criticism of Bahrain's rulers that he eventually leveled against President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt - or that he has repeatedly aimed at the mullahs in Iran". But he can't; after all, Bahrain's I-shot-my-people king is another usual suspect, a "pillar of the American security architecture in the Middle East", and "a staunch ally of Washington in its showdown with Iran's Shi'ite theocracy".
Under these strategic circumstances, it's hard to dismiss Lebanese political scientist and blogger at the Angry Arab website As'ad AbuKhalil, when he stresses, "The US had to plot the repression of Bahrain to appease Saudi Arabia and other Arab tyrants who were mad at Obama for not defending Mubarak to the every end."
Incidentally, Saudi Arabia's prince Talal Bin Abdulaziz - father of the billionaire darling of the West prince Al Waleed bin Talal - told the BBC there's a danger the protests in Bahrain could spill into Saudi Arabia.
It's never enough to stress Bahrain is all about Iran vs Saudi Arabia (see All about the Pearl roundabout Asia Times Online, February 18).
The US naval base in Manama translates as a cop on the (Persian Gulf) beat. Moreover, 15% of Saudi Arabia's population is Shi'ite, living in the eastern provinces, where the oil is. That makes it very hard for Bahrainis - Shi'ite and even Sunni - to threaten the ruling, Sunni, al-Khalifa dynasty, as the House of Saud will immediately rush in with all sorts of logistical and military support.
Moreover, Saudi Arabia has huge leverage over Bahrain's oil, which comes from the shared Abu Saafa oilfield, explored by Saudi Aramco and shared with a Bahraini refiner.
Bahrain is far from swimming in oil. According to International Monetary Fund figures, in 2010 Saudi Arabia produced roughly 8.5 million barrels of oil a day; the United Arab Emirates 2.4 million barrels; Kuwait 2.3 million barrels; and Bahrain only 200,000 barrels.
According to Moody's, to balance its budget the Bahrain government needs oil at $80 a barrel, "one of the highest budgetary ‘break-even' points in the region", says the Financial Times. As a Barclays Capital report puts it with typical corporate contortionism, "The announcements of street protests, concessions by the government at the cost of a deteriorating fiscal position and simmering political tensions have created a backdrop that has clearly caused investors to view Bahrain with increased caution."
So if protesters really want to hit the al-Khalifa where it hurts, they should aim at the nexus oil business/financial sector. It will be an extraordinary uphill struggle against a nasty police state crammed with mercenaries - especially Jordanian military consultants (the "master torturer" of the Mukhabarat is a Jordanian) and now also counting on "help" from Saudi tanks and troops. Moreover, the riot police and special forces don't speak the local dialect, and in the case of Balochis from Pakistan, don't even speak Arabic.
Prospects are bleak. The inside dope in Manama is of a split within the royal family. The dreaded, sectarian Khalid bin Ahmed, responsible for the policy of naturalizing "imported" Sunnis to alter the demographic balance and dilute even more the voting rights of the indigenous Shi'ite population, would be on one side; and the king plus Crown Prince Salman (Gates' pal) would be on the other. The king may be losing control. And in this case Saudi Arabia would be lobbying for bin Ahmed to take over and get one of the king's sons, Nasir Bin Hamed to be crown prince. This does make sense if seen under the angle of the brutal crackdown.
Time to cross the bridge
What Bahrain's Shi'ites can certainly accomplish is to inspire Shi'ites in Saudi Arabia in terms of a long fight for greater social, economic and religious equality. It's wishful thinking to bet on the House of Saud reforming itself - not while enjoying extraordinary oil wealth and maintaining a vast repression apparatus, more than enough to buy or intimidate any form of dissent.
Yet there may be reasons to dream of Saudi Arabia following the winds of new Egypt. The average age of the House of Saud trio of ruling princes is 83. Of the country's indigenous population of 18.5 million, 47% is under 18. A medieval conception of Islam, as well as overwhelming corruption, is under increasing vigilance on YouTube, Facebook and Twitter.
The middle class is shrinking. 40% of the population actually lives under the seal of poverty, has access to virtually no education, and is in fact unemployable (90% of all employees are "imported" Sunnis). Even crossing the causeway to Manama is enough to give people ideas.
Once again, talk about an extraordinary uphill struggle - in a country with no political parties - or labor unions, or student organizations; with any sort of protests and strikes outlawed; and with members of the shura council appointed by the king.
The Arab News newspaper anyway has already warned that those winds of freedom from northern Africa may hit Saudi Arabia. And it may all revolve around youth unemployment, at an unsustainable 40%. There's no question; the great 2011 Arab revolt will only fulfill its historic mission when it shakes the foundations of the House of Saud. Young Saudi Sunnis and Shi'ites, you have nothing to lose but your fear.