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Saudi Influence Could Be Key To Outcome In Bahrain

Posted on 28 February 2011 by hashimilion

Even as mainly Shiite Muslim protesters camp out in Pearl Square demanding major reforms, the deciding factor in the outcome for Bahrain could be neighboring Saudi Arabia.

Behind the scenes and away from the streets, Saudi Arabia, a key U.S. ally and top oil supplier, is seeking to return to the status quo in Bahrain - or at least to slow down calls for change. That Bahrain’s Shiite majority could gain more rights and powers from the ruling Sunni Muslims, Saudis think, could lead to unrest among their own Shiites, who live in Saudi Arabia’s oil-rich Eastern Province. In that case, reforms and economic incentives might not be enough to stop a movement from spreading there.

Bahrain is the first Persian Gulf country to be hit by the unrest that’s sweeping the Middle East, and Saudi Arabia is one of the last U.S. allies in the region since the regimes in Egypt and Tunisia fell. Although Bahrain is a tiny island of less than a million, what happens here could unleash calls for change in the much larger and powerful Saudi Arabia. It’s a case of Goliath fearing David’s wrath.

At stake are oil prices, which are now at their highest since October 2008, and even relations with the United States, which is walking a fine line between promoting the will of the people and supporting a longstanding ally.

In Saudi Arabia, officials already have quashed several small attempts to launch protests against some government decisions. Three days after the revolt began in Egypt, for example, roughly 50 residents protested the government response to deadly floods in Jeddah. They were promptly arrested.

Protesters in Manama are calling for Bahrain to become a constitutional monarchy, rather than an absolute one. Such a shift probably would give the Shiite majority more power. As the Saudis see it, that represents instability for them; Saudi Arabia’s Shiite minority could then rise up and ask for more freedoms its own.

Protesters in Manama threatened Wednesday to lash out at the Saudi regime if it thwarted their efforts, though they refused to give their names.

“If they stop us, we will go there,” one protester yelled.

For Saudi Arabia, the best outcome in Bahrain is enough change to pacify protesters but not so much that it risks government structure, said James Denselow, a Middle East writer and former researcher for Chatham House, a policy research center in London.

“Instability could not get more on Saudi’s doorstep than Bahrain,” Denselow said. “The outcome that Saudi Arabia wants is … for everybody to leave the streets and that small changes be managed by the elite. They want a slow process.”

As with much of what happens in Bahrain, Saudi influence occurs under a veil of secrecy. But there have been some telling signs of the scale of Saudi impact. Bahraini King Hamad bin Isa al Khalifa left the country Wednesday for the first time since the unrest began to meet his Saudi counterpart, King Abdullah, who had just returned home hours earlier after three months of medical treatment in the U.S. and recovery in Morocco. Observers said they think that the Bahraini king consulted with the Saudis over what to do next.

Earlier in the week, the Saudi Council of Ministers said in a statement: “The kingdom will stand by the sisterly state of Bahrain with all its capabilities,” which some Shiites in Bahrain interpreted as a threat to send military aid.

Many think that Saudi influence - coupled with a sizable minority here that has benefited from a Bahrain guided by Saudi Arabia - will thwart efforts for major reform, even as crowds remain camped out at Pearl Square, the main demonstration site. Bahrain’s crown prince has called for national dialogue, but neither the government nor the Shiite opposition groups have codified their positions, and discussions have yet to get under way.

Instead, the Bahraini monarchy said it had released 308 political prisoners since Tuesday; opponents said 12-year-olds were among them, and many of them joined protesters at Pearl Square.

On Wednesday, before King Abdullah landed back in Saudi Arabia, the Saudis announced that they will spend billions of dollars on economic aid to help their more impoverished citizens buy homes and start businesses in an attempt to keep protests from rising in the kingdom. Two weeks ago, the Saudis gave nearly $3,000 to every family in the country.

The Bahraini economy, which generates roughly $25 billion of gross domestic product annually, depends equally on tourism, the government, industry and financial services. Three of those four sectors account for around three-fourths of the GDP, and they’re directly or indirectly tied to Saudi Arabia. Saudis invest in Bahraini banks to conduct finances outside the watchful eye of the regime; Saudi Arabian oil revenues fund the Bahraini government; and three-day jaunts of escapism are key to Bahraini tourism.

“Saudi Arabia is not just a big neighbor to the west; it is safe to say that they have had a major influence on the economic development of Bahrain. The operating budget of the government is mostly oil related, 75 percent of which is of Saudi origin,” said a Western official here, speaking only on the condition of anonymity in order to be more candid. “That buys them a certain amount of influence.”

There are important social impacts as well. Many call Bahrain Saudi Arabia’s Las Vegas.

As soon as some Saudi women, who are banned from driving in their home country, enter Bahrain on the King Fahd Causeway, they jump into the driver’s seat. They take themselves to places such as the Arabic disco on the top floor of the Riviera hotel and pay hundreds of dollars to sit freely in Islamic garb and enjoy cold beers. Scantily clad women greet Saudi men at another bar downstairs.

Three days later, the Saudis whisk themselves over the bridge again and back into one of the most conservative societies in the world.

But Bahrain, the Saudis’ much-needed release valve, now has closed off. Traffic along the causeway between the countries has dropped dramatically, Bahraini officials who work on the border said, and businesses that cater to Saudis said their dealings had come virtually to a standstill. Indeed, supporters of the regime said the economic impact was a big reason to stop the protests.

Riviera hotel manager Mohammed al Shihab said that usually 50 percent of his patrons were Saudis. But only a handful of his 65 rooms are occupied these days. There are no reservations at the Arabic disco, just four fully stocked refrigerators of beer and refreshments. At the Sweetheart bar downstairs, four women in strapless dresses smoked hookahs and waited for the men who never arrived.

These days, Shihab said, he’s closed the Arabic disco altogether: “I can’t keep a disco open for four people.”

He said he wished the protests would stop; Bahrain can’t afford it.

“Now there is no life here,” he said. “Everybody is losing.”


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Saudis Must Stop Meddling in Bahrain

Posted on 17 February 2011 by hashimilion

Bahrain might be viewed as vulnerable to unrest because of deep-rooted discontent with the ruling al-Khalifas. Economic hardship and lack of political freedoms could incite a revolution similar to those in Egypt and Tunisia. Will the Bahraini regime be the next government to fall?

Press TV conducted an interview with Bahraini opposition leader Saeed al-Shahabi in London to bring a better insight on the ongoing unrest in the country.

PressTV: The recent October elections in Bahrain: people are fresh off the crackdown that occurred then: You were tried in absentia: Human rights abuses were rampant then on the opposition: The constitution left no room for any fair representation. Tell us about the situation.

al-Shahabi: I think the first thing that is striking is the sheer number of people who have suddenly burst into anger and decide to come out to streets, and the square there, the Pearl Square which is now renamed as the Martyr square is full of all type of people from businessmen, professors, doctors, scholars and students.

This is a new phenomenon since 1956 when we had a major uprising against the British rule at the time and their support of the al-Khalifa family. We have seen skirmishes, outburst of anger but we haven’t seen such uprising to this extend of determination of the regime change. We haven’t seen anything like this. I think it is an indication to the corruption and the inevitability of the regime change. It has lost its legitimacy, its credibility, and its international status as a modern state that respects the right of its own citizens.

PressTV: I want you to describe the years of oppression that al-Khalifas had exercised. And the most recent was the October crackdown. Would you elaborate on that so we can get some background information to see why people are so dissatisfied?

al-Shahabi: We have had repression going back to 1965 when people were being killed during demonstrations in the streets and then we had more over in the 70s, but most of it was in the 80s when at least 6 to 8 people were martyred in detention centers, and in the 90s when we had the uprising between 1994 and 1999 in which at least forty people were killed either by gunshots, wounds or under torture.

But more recently what we saw in the past six months when Dr….returned home from UK, was arrested and since then there was a spate of arrests that included hundreds of young people- as young as ten years of age- scholars, academics, professors who have been tortured beyond beliefs. They were tortured by being hanged from hands and legs, beaten or being forced to break their fast during Ramadhan which is considered as one of the worst tortures on scholars. So such a thing had not happened so far.

We see people who have been ill-treated, or have been out of jobs for years and they cannot afford their lives. They don’t feel even safe on their own land. All these contributed to the burst of anger among people. What we see today is an uprising against this regime.

PressTV: A bridge connects Bahrain to Saudi Arabia: Will they let their royal family member be toppled?

al-Shahabi: It would be very sad and tragic if the Saudis attempt to interfere in the case of Bahrain. This is an internal struggle by people who want to get free from this dictatorship.

The Saudis must respect the right of Bahrainis to determine their destiny. Everyone has the right to determine his or her destiny and Bahrainis must enjoy that right. The other point is that the Saudis would not be immune from criticism if they ever attempt to intervene directly in the affairs of Bahrain because the Saudis are known specially in the West as being the masters of terrorism. They are cultivating extremism inside their country and the world has seen atrocities that were committed by the people who were either financed, trained, or brought in the Saudi kingdom.

So I don’t think it is in the interest of the Saudis to interfere in Bahrain internal affairs. In fact people of Bahrain who have moved forward have so far been very polite, civilized and very peaceful.

There is no justification for intervention in Bahrain’s affairs. The Saudis must know that this uprising could have been taken place in Bahrain many years ago.

This regime does not care about people. It only cares about itself. It only is interested in expropriating the lands and stealing the wealth of the nation not building house for them or providing their welfare. So Saudi Arabia is well advised to avoid interfering in its neighbor’s internal affairs.

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