Does the Unrest in Bahrain Threaten the Saudi Monarchy?

As protests roil the Middle East, most commentators are focused on countries like Yemen, Iran, and Algeria—but the real action may be happening in tiny Bahrain. The Persian Gulf statelet is home to the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet and a smattering of other American military personnel, but the island kingdom has another, potentially more important claim to fame: It is seen as a harbinger for Saudi Arabia's oil-rich Eastern Province.

As with the Saudi Arabian desert governorate of al-Hasa, Bahrain's largely Shiite population is under the control of a Sunni monarchy. Saudi Arabia's grip on its vast oil wealth would be threatened if ideas about self-rule spill over to its Eastern Province, and so the House of Saud has cultivated strong ties with Bahrain's ruling Al Khalifa family. The rulers of Bahrain have until now kept a lid on the situation through a carefully calibrated combination of carrots (oil-financed handouts) and sticks (fomenting sectarian strife), but that stategy might not hold up to the revolutionary tide sweeping the Middle East. As Gala Riani with Jane's Defence Weekly told the BBC, "The authorities will be able to handle it, as they have in the past, if it is sectarian in nature," but with crowds chanting "neither Sunni nor Shia but Bahraini," that's a conditional that may no longer hold.

The big question now is whether or not there will be a Saudi intervention. The kingdom showed a willingness to intervene in favor of its allies during the Egyptian crisis when it floated the idea of making up America's military aid to Egypt if the flow were cut off, and the BBC is citing both Riani and an unnamed "expert with close ties to the powerful Saudi Interior Minister Prince Nayef" as saying that the Saudis are prepared to intervene if the situation "gets out of hand." The subscription-only Tactical Report is claiming that the Saudi interior ministry already has plans to ship anti-riot gear to its counterparts in Bahrain.

As Cairo-based blogger Issandr El Amrani has pointed out, the U.S. State Department has been very critical of the Iranian regime's crackdown on protests, while only offering tepid support for the protesters in Bahrain, even as the death toll in the island kingdom has risen above that of Iran. If the situation in Bahrain does indeed get "out of hand" and the Saudis intervene, America could find itself in a very sticky situation, balancing the interests of its Saudi client state on the one hand with its supposed commitment to fostering democracy on the other.

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  • ||

    Finally, a situation where the greasy sanctimony of Hillary Clinton and the slippery equivocation of Barack Obama may actually be of use.

  • Sovereign Immunity||

    Fine, put a burka on her, ship her to Saudi, and let her work her voodoo. In fact, tell 'em they can keep her as a token of good will.

  • Gus||

    "In fact, tell 'em they can keep her as a token of good will."

    We should at least get a few camels for her.

  • ||

    I shouldn't laugh, but that is sooo funny!

  • omg||

    Oops...we sold a boatload of military hardware to the Saudis as well. I predict this will end badly.

  • ||

    The sooner the House of Saud's and senior Wahabbi clerics' heads are displayed on spikes in downtown Riyadh, the better.

  • mr simple||

    I don know if they have enough space to hold the heads of the entire House of Saud. There are around 7000 members, with 3000-4000 princes.

  • ||

    A properly displayed head on a spike takes up what, two square feet? There's plenty of room in Riyadh but the flies might get bothersome after a week or so.

  • Tim||

    More victims of weapons of mass dissemination of information

  • dfd||

    More importantly, does it threaten the season-opening Bahrain Grand Prix?

    But seriously, you can almost hear that little toad Bernie Ecclestone fretting over the potential loss of hundreds of millions of pounds showered on him to secure races by his friends in Arab royal families.

  • ||

    STEVE SMITH VISIT BAHRAIN ONCE, BUT FOUND CLIMATE NOT GOOD FOR HIS PELT! PLUS HARD TO RAPE PEOPLE WEARING ROBES! NOT THAT STEVE NOT TRY, BUT STEVE NOT LIKE TO SWEAT!

  • Tim||

    Episode IV, A NEW HOPE It is a period of civil unrest. Rebel bloggers, striking from a hidden servers, have won their first victory against the evil OPEC Empire. During the courtroom battle, Rebel spies managed to tweet secret wikileaks docs to the internet, an unarmored space station with enough power to inform an entire planet. Pursued by the Empire’s sinister agents, Princess Leia races home aboard her starship, custodian of the stolen cables that can save her people and restore freedom to the middle east….

  • Sovereign Immunity||

    Tim, you just won the Internetz...

  • ||

    Not redeemable until the DVD comes out.

  • ||

    Mark Zuckerberg shot first!

  • ||

    Sure would be nice if all of this street anger translated into the liberalization of the Middle East. Believe it when I see it, but you never know!

  • Tim||

    Agenda:
    1. Freedom!

    2. Kill Jews!

  • Auntie Semitic||

    Works for me!

  • ||

    My hopes are up but my eyes are also open. Popular revolutions do not always end in puppies, rainbows and freedom.

    Chasing the dictator out of town is only the first step.

  • ||

    All too true.

  • Barack Obama||

    Popular revolutions do not always end in puppies, rainbows and freedom.

    Fortunately for us, the one in 2008 did.

  • ||

    Well, maybe the first two.

  • ||

    You forgot unicorns.

  • Irresponsible Hater||

    So Hamad ibn Isa Al Khalifa of House Harkonnen Khalifa allows his nephew Rabban his uncle Khalifah ibn Sulman al-Khalifah to administer Bahrain with a heavy hand, drawing Emperor Shaddam Prince Nayef Al Saud into intervening... All according to plan, no doubt. Though that the popular discontent is taking the form of a nativistic, nationalistic character is... something unexpected. I wonder who's leading them.

  • ||

    What is this, literary analogy day?

  • Tim||

    You'd prefer STEVE SMITH ANALogy day?

  • ||

    EVERY DAY STEVE SMITH ANALRAPIST DAY!

  • Buddy Playzwun||

    STEVE SMITH ADMIT, STEVE SMITH AM NOT A LAWYER.

  • ||

    I didn't expect some kind of Rapist Inquisition.

  • ||

    RAPE JIHAD!

  • ||

    NO ONE EXPECTS THE STEVE SMITH RAPE!

  • ||

    PUT THEM IN THE HAIRLESS CHAIR!

  • Turk Ishborder||

    IS THIS YOUR BAR OF SOAP?

  • ||

    We can only hope so.

  • spur||

    What is this thing with Steve Smith I keep seeing? Is it just liberty lovers natural dislike of the NY Giants / USC?

  • IceTrey||

    The situtation is very different in Saudi Arabia. It's the citizens who are conservative and the government that is liberal. The King has been trying for years to let women drive and work and institute other liberal ideas but the people say no. Plus it's also the religious police who treat the people like crap not so much the secular police and they seem to like it.

  • thomas sabo watches||

    I just couldnt leave your website before saying that I really enjoyed the quality information you offer to your visitors… Will be back often to check up on new stuff you post!

  • ||

    I certainly hope so.

  • ||

    When I was getting a degree in Middle Eastern history back in the mid-'90s, one of my professors explained about the bridge between Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. She explained that it was massively overbuilt in terms of the weight it could support and that was because the Saudis wanted to be drive tanks across it to put down any uprising in Bahrain before it went too far.

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