Flashpoint in the Gulf: Tiny Bahrain Poses Big Headache for the West

By Alexander Smoltczyk in Manama, Bahrain

The Arab revolution has reached the tiny Gulf stateof Bahrain, where Sunni rulers control a majority Shiite population.Western nations are following the protests with concern:If the unrest spreads to the Shiite minority in neighboring Saudi Arabia, it could affect the world's most important oil-producing region.

Photo Gallery: Grief and Hope in Bahrain Photos
REUTERS

When German state governors, former chancellors or cabinet ministers visit the emirates and kingdoms along the Persian Gulf, the ambassadors in the respective countries like to say: "We are living in the eye of the hurricane here." The states are seen as an oasis of stability, surrounded by rogue regimes and failed states.

Or rather, they were. As of last week, even the Gulf nations are no longer as calm as they used to be. Following the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, as well as popular protests in Libya, Jordan and Yemen, the sea change in the Arab world has now reached the sheikhs.

Tanks have been out on the streets of Manama, the capital of Bahrain. The city had been due to host two rounds of the GP2 Asia Series car race -- one last weekend, and one as part of the Formula One Grand Prix weekend from Mar. 11-13 -- but both have been cancelled.

Hence the sound of engines roaring through the city's financial district in the early morning hours on Thursday did not come from race cars, but from heavy diesel-powered trucks carrying police riot squads. Their destination was the capital's Pearl Square, where a few dozen tents had been set up beneath a 90-meter (295-foot) monument to Bahrain's pearl divers.

A Fear of Open Spaces

The roundabout is relatively small, as public plazas go. And only a few hundred people had been protesting there since Tuesday of last week, waving Bahrain's red-and-white flag and demanding more democracy. It was a relatively small demonstration.

But the regimes in the Arab world have developed a fear of squares and plazas. A political agoraphobia, if you will, has spread among the region's autocratic rulers, who are convinced that those who tolerate occupied squares will end up like former presidents Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia or Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak, who were both recently topped by popular protests in their countries.

At least four people died, including a seven-year-old girl, when police stormed the tent city at 3 a.m.

The protesters had hoped that the roundabout surrounding the Pearl Monument would become Bahrain's version of Tahrir Square in Cairo. But now the events there are more reminiscent of what happened in Tiananmen Square in Beijing in 1989. Within a few hours, what had been a tolerated forum for demonstrators seeking more democracy had turned into a monument of mourning, as the tiny country of 1.23 million became the latest combustion point in the Arab revolution. The situation in Bahrain clearly poses a potential threat to the region -- and to the West's oil supply.

Plans to Free Political Prisoners

Following a demand from protest leaders that they would not enter into any talks until troops had been pulled back, the government withdrew the military from the streets of Manama on Saturday, followed by the police. The move allowed thousands of protesters to return to the Pearl Square roundabout. They remained there through the night, with supplies of food and electricity allowed through.

On Monday, the authorities arranged a counter-protest, with thousands of pro-government demonstrators gathering outside the Al Fateh mosque in Manama to support the monarchy. It was also announced that the Formula One Grand Prix due to be held in Bahrain in March had been called off by the crown prince. And in a bid to appease the protesters -- who were already preparing for another big demonstration on Tuesday -- the king of Bahrain announced plans to free some of the country's political prisoners.

A senior opposition figure was also set to return to Bahrain on Tuesday. Hassan Mushaima, leader of the Haq movement, revealed on his Facebook page that he wanted to test if the government was serious about its offer of talks or if he would be arrested upon his return from exile in London.

The First Domino in the Line

Bahrain is not Egypt. The island nation has a smaller population than Munich, and more than half of its inhabitants are foreigners. Why, then, should the world care about this small country and its problems?

It shouldn't, except for the fact that the world is dependent on oil, and the fact that two regional powers, Iran and Saudi Arabia, are both seeking to exert influence in Bahrain. The country is a domino at the very front of a line. The geopolitical consequences of a collapse of the regime in Manama would extend well beyond the region.

"We were sleeping," says Umm Yussuf, a 26-year-old bank employee and blogger. "Someone said: Now they're coming. We took the children to the big tent. Then everything got really loud, there was smoke everywhere and it was hard to breathe."

Yussuf is sitting in front of the entrance to the city's Salmaniya hospital. The bodies of three people are laid out in the hospital morgue: A 53-year-old man with 91 pellets in his side, a 55-year-old man with a cracked skull and a 20-year-old with 200 pellets in his chest and arms.

"Pellet guns are used to kill dogs, not people. What kind of a government does such a thing?" Yussuf asks. He says that they were foreign police officers, from Yemen, India and Pakistan. "They have no scruples. They shoot and don't ask questions."

Two paramedics, Yassir Ali and Jamil Abdullah, show us their injuries. One has a broken arm and the other has a black eye. They say the police dragged them out of the hospital, tied them up and beat them. "We were not allowed to rescue the injured," they say.

Cosmopolitan Image

Ironically, all of this is happening in a country whose slogan is "Business Friendly Bahrain," a country that likes to cultivate an image of being moderate and cosmopolitan, and which is known for its relaxed customs and complete lack of corporate taxes.

"We were standing on the edge of an abyss," says Foreign Minister Sheikh Khalid bin Ahmed, who, like the majority of the cabinet, is a member of the Al Khalifa royal family.

The ruling clan is known for its tenacity. Prime Minister Sheikh Khalifa Bin Salman Al Khalifa has already been in office longer than former Egyptian President Mubarak was. In fact, the sheikh has been Bahrain's only prime minister since the country gained its independence from Britain in 1971. Is this stability, or torpidity?

The extent to which King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa supported the events on Thursday is still unclear. The prime minister commands the police, and the king, who is the prime minister's nephew, has reportedly been critical of the many mercenaries in the police force.

The demonstrators have little appreciation for such internal matters within the royal family. They feel ridiculed by the king, who in a televised address had indicated a willingness to talk.

Now Bahrain, an otherwise unassuming place, has shown its ugly face, sending a chill down the spine of international diplomacy.

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