Kristin Smith Diwan writes:
As the GCC foreign ministers huddled in a Bahraini capital seemingly under siege, it is clear that the predicted stability of the oil states is being put to the test. Most analysts believed the Gulf would be spared the wave of rebellion spreading across the Arab World due to their relative wealth and welfare provisions for their populace. Yet Bahrain’s pre-emptive promises of increased social spending and direct subsidies of $2,700 per family did not prevent robust protests this week. Analysts also suggested that monarchies are less prone to revolutionary fervor than the Arab faux republics; legitimacy is based on religion and paternalistic care of citizenry, not on the false promise of public sovereignty in the republics. Yet it is exactly that paternalistic authority that is being called into question by political activists across the Gulf.
In fact, the demands of Gulf activists, and increasingly Gulf publics, are broadly similar to those coming from Tunisia and Egypt: We want accountable governance, free of corruption. We want popular participation and to have our say on the issues that affect us. And we want to be free to speak our minds — to assemble online and off without fear of intimidation or arrest. In short, Gulf publics, and particularly Gulf youths, want to be full citizens.
An uncertain calm has settled over the small island kingdom of Bahrain. The wave of peaceful pro-democracy protests from February 14-17 culminated in bloodshed, including the brutal murder of seven activists, some of whom were asleep in tents, by the armed forces. On orders from above, the army withdrew from the roundabout on the outskirts of the capital of Manama where the protests have been centered, and since shortly after the seven deaths it has observed calls for restraint. Thousands of jubilant protesters seized the moment to reoccupy the roundabout, the now infamous Pearl Circle. In commemoration of the dead, the demonstrators have renamed it Martyrs’ Circle.
The mood in the circle is buoyant, even carnivalesque. It is also dead serious, for the thousands of encamped demonstrators demand nothing short of fundamental change to the kingdom’s autocratic political order. The crown prince, Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa, has issued a bland call for healing and national dialogue. The country’s formal opposition may be tempted by the prospect of realizing at least some of its long-established demands for reform. But the wounds from the direct assault at dawn on February 17 are deep. Several prominent banners in Martyrs’ Circle display the pledge, “No dialogue with those who killed us in cold blood.” Chants echo: “We will sit here until the fall of the regime!” The fault lines that have long divided rulers and subjects in Bahrain have widened due to the carnage.
Meanwhile, the New York Times reports:
The United States military undermined efforts to improve relations with Bahrain’s Shiite majority and understated abuses by the Sunni royal family, according to one present and one former American government adviser and a Bahraini human rights advocate.
As Bahrain’s leaders struggle to hold back a rising popular revolt against their absolute rule, Washington’s posture toward the Shiite majority, which is spearheading the opposition, could prove crucial to future relations with this strategically valuable Persian Gulf nation. The United States Navy’s Fifth Fleet is based here, helping ensure the flow of oil through the Strait of Hormuz and the gulf, and safeguarding American interests in this volatile region.
Over the years, the military, according to the advisers and the human rights advocate, believed that King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa and his court were reform-minded leaders who could advance democracy and preserve stability. That narrative contrasts sharply with the experience of the Shiites, as documented by human rights groups and some of the military’s own advisers.
“The problem has been that we have been doing everything we can to cuddle up to the Khalifas and have been consciously ignoring at best the situation of Bahraini Shiites,” said Gwenyth Todd, a former political adviser to the Navy in Bahrain from 2004 to 2007 who was also an adviser on Middle Eastern and North African affairs at the Pentagon and the White House. “We could find ourselves in a very bad situation if the regime has to make major concessions to the Shia, unless we change our tone.”