The pro-democracy protests in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia have the potential to have a huge impact on world politics. The stakes are very high.
In Bahrain, Saudi Arabia’s tiny island neighbour, protesters have mobilised in their hundreds of thousands for weeks to demand the Khalifah royal family be removed from power.
Bahrain is of great strategic importance for the West. It hosts the US Navy's fifth fleet and a US airbase. This helps ensure US control of the oil-rich Persian Gulf region and the ability to maintain a constant threat against Iran.
It is also a major centre for international finance.
The protests in Bahrain are worrying the Islamic fundamentalist monarchy that governs Saudi Arabia, the US’s most important ally in the Arab world.
The Saudis are concerned that success by Bahraini protesters could inspire a similar revolt in Saudi Arabia — especially in the oil-rich eastern areas.
Saudi authorities announced a ban on public protests after several rallies across the country, the British Guardian said on March 6.
The Australian said on March 11 that police fired on demonstrators the previous day.
A number of small gatherings occurred in late January outside government buildings, “protesting their deteriorating living conditions, rising unemployment (in one of the strongest economies in the world), and increasingly corrupt and stagnant bureaucracy”, Jadaliyya.com said on January 29.
A small protest occurred in the eastern city of Qatif on February 24, demanding the release of prisoners held for long periods without trial, Reuters said on February 26.
On March 4, there were protests in the eastern region and a smaller protest in the capital Riyadh, the March 8 Guardian said.
The protests in the eastern region primarily called for the release from prison of Sheikh Tawfiq al-Amer, who was freed on March 6. He had been arrested after giving a sermon calling for a constitutional monarchy.
A group of young Saudi men and women released a statement on March 5 listing a series of demands for progressive reform of Saudi society.
The list included: giving women full rights; addressing unemployment, poverty and cost of living issues; fighting corruption, nepotism and religious discrimination; ending enforcement of religious rules by the state; improving the education system and expanding cultural life.
Saudi Arabia is ruled by an absolute monarchy that has enjoyed extremely close relations with the US for 75 years. The government, led by King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz, enforces its own version of strict Islamic law, which includes gender segregation, suppression of religious minorities and no freedom of speech.
Jeffrey Rudolph said in an article posted at JuanCole.com on February 28: “This relationship highlights the gross hypocrisy of US foreign policy: fundamentalism and dictatorship in the Arab world is only condemned when it comes garbed in anti-Americanism.
“The US and Saudi governments have had a clear long-term agreement. The Saudis agree to supply oil in accordance with US needs and to reinvest the resulting revenue in US assets and arms.
“In return, the US provides protection to the Royal family regardless of its internal repression and extremist ideology.”
However, the relationship is about more than simply supply of oil. US author and political analyst Noam Chomsky said in a June 2007 Monthly Review article: “What has been central to [US] planning [concerning Middle East energy resources] is control, not access, an important distinction ... Such control gives the United States 'veto power' over its industrial rivals.”
The Saudi regime has been largely stable, but the revolt in Bahrain is causing panic. The government said it would use “all its capabilities” to support Bahrain's rulers, Associated Press said on February 22.
Thirty tanks were seen entering Bahrain from Saudi Arabia on February 28, Almasryalyoum.com said that day.
Middle East analyst Zyad Al-Isa told Press TV on March 9: “The Saudi king has tried to exert much influence on the king of Bahrain by telling him specifically that if they carry on being reluctant and hesitant to crush the revolt in Bahrain, then the king of Saudi Arabia is going to intervene, himself, with his security forces.”
Despite the threat from Saudi Arabia, Bahrainis have continued to protest.
Protesters rallied outside the Bahrain Financial Harbour, the island’s financial centre on March 7, calling for the downfall of the government, FT.com said that day. They also held up one dinar notes, after revelations that prime minister Sheikh Khalifa bin Salman al-Khalifa bought the land on which the Financial Harbour was built from the government for one dinar ($2.65).
A rally was also held outside the US embassy, calling for the US to drop its support for the monarchy. Zeinab al-Khawaja, a protest organiser, told Al Jazeera on March 7: “We want America not to get involved, we can overthrow this regime.”
“All we want is for America not to support the dictatorship in Bahrain.”
Thousands of women marched in Manama on March 8 to mark International Women's Day and to support the anti-government protests, USAtoday.com said that day.
A protest outside the immigration office called for the end of the government’s policy of giving citizenship to large numbers of foreign Sunni Muslims, Al Jazeera said on March 9.
The policy is aimed at changing the demographics of the country in favour of the minority Sunni sector. The mainly Shia Muslim crowd made it clear they were protesting against the policy not Sunnis in general — with whom they called for unity.
In response to the ongoing pressure, the Bahraini government announced 50,000 new homes would be built at a cost of $5.3 billion, AFP said on March 8. The government hopes the concessions will entice the opposition into dialogue.
FT.com reported on March 7 that Abduljalil al-Singace, a leader of Al-Haq recently released from jail, said: “There are no signs of an intent [from the government] to change anything. The dialogue is an attempt to slow revolutionary momentum: Egypt shows change is possible.”
A “Coalition for a Republic” in Bahrain was formed on March 7, made up of groups calling for the complete removal of the monarchy, Jadaliyya.com said on March 8. It includes al-Haq Movement for Liberty and Democracy, al-Wafa National Islamic Movement, and Bahrain Islamic Freedom Movement.
The Coalition for a Republic differs from a more moderate coalition of political groups that is calling for a constitutional monarchy. The moderate grouping includes the popular Shia party, Al-Wefaq.
However, the moderate coalition appears out of step with most protesters, who are calling for the monarchy to fall.