Last modified: 7:58 AM Saturday, 14 January 2017

A tale of two monarchies

Flanked to north and south by the “two seas” from which it took its name lies the desert archipelago of Bahrain. Tiny in geographic area but enormous in strategic military importance to the United States because it hosts the US’ Fifth Fleet, it is also economically significant as the headquarters of many banking corporations. And, since Monday, 14 February 2011, its capital, Manama, has been thronged with protesters demanding democratization, a rewritten constitution, return of stolen national wealth and an end to political repression and corruption.

Protesters fill Bahrain's Pearl Roundabout

Before: Protesters fill Bahrain’s Pearl Roundabout, facing the iconic monument at the center of the square.
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Concentrating in Pearl Roundabout (Bahrain's nearest equivalent to Cairo’s Tahrir Square), protests have attracted crowds of 100,000 of a population approximating 1,250,000; this is approximately eight percent of all its people. Since the majority of the population is Shi’ite, but the country is ruled by Sunnis, while sizeable contingents of guest workers from India, the Philippines, Sri Lanka and elsewhere are also present, internal politics are volatile at the best of times; the government has attempted to exploit this fact to divide the population and claim that the protests are sectarian, but in actuality the protesters have emulated those in Egypt, joining disparate elements under an explicit agreement to set aside disagreements among themselves until their goals have been achieved.

Over time, however, the uprisings across the Middle East have met with increasingly violent crackdowns: While Tunisia’s government fell with minimal bloodshed and Egypt’s with the loss of perhaps 500 protesters (of a population of nearly 80 million), Moammar Qaddafi has promised to fight to “the last drop of blood” and has spilled much of it, killing at least 6,000 of his citizens to date. In Bahrain, meanwhile, seven protesters are so far confirmed dead and 541 injured; this was as of 26 February, so the numbers will increase. The worst single incident came on 17 February, when riot police made a surprise 3:00 a.m. raid on sleeping protesters, killing four and wounding 231, with 70 missing. The following day, government forces attacked protesters with live ammunition. However, none of this has deterred the opposition, which continues to keep myriads of protesters on Pearl Roundabout.

Bahrain: Woman protester touches bloodstains on ground

During: A woman protester touches bloodstains on the ground.
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Bahrain: Army tears down Pearl Square monument

After: Protests safely if bloodily silenced, the army tears down the monument that was obviously the source of all the dissent.
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But there is another factor in this equation: Twenty-five kilometers across the King Fahd Causeway to the west lies the Middle East’s most reactionary monarchy, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, which may come to the support of Bahrain’s rulers should the latter request it. There have, in fact, been several reports that 15 tank carriers with two tanks each were on their way across the causeway as of 28 February or 1 March; but, although this is attributed to the Egyptian news site Al-Masry Al-Youm, KSA has denied it, and the latter site no longer contains any information on the matter.

Even if there is no truth to this report, however, it is probable that if protests escalate, KSA will send military support to suppress them. Bahrain is too close, too rich and too militarily important to ignore. Further, the leaders of those nations currently experiencing uprisings have learned from the experience of their former peers in Tunisia and Egypt that soldiers will not readily fire on their own people; soldiers from another country, however, may have no such compunctions.

This may well accelerate the protesters’ timetable: Protests originally intended in KSA for later in March have already begun, with about 30 arrests and one death to date. And if the kingdom has sent tanks to Bahrain, there may well be significant escalation. The opposition is well aware of KSA’s military power as a potential threat to its movement as well as its cultural and economic importance, and would be foolish not to proceed aggressively in the face of such an intervention.

And if there is a single act that would alter the Middle East profoundly and permanently, it would be the ouster of the hubris-afflicted Saudi royals. Overthrow this fetid family-owned despotism, with its pervasive propaganda, social backwardness and fostering of religious extremism, and the world will change for good — and for the better.

Originally published as a review of an atimes.com article on protests in Bahrain.

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