The violent crackdown by the maverick Libyan strongman on unarmed pro-democracy protestors in Libya is rightfully catching the world's attention. Given Europe's energy interests in Libya, the geo-strategic location of the North African country, and the atrocities being committed by the regime, Qaddafi's removal has now become an international concern. Reports emanating out of Libya suggest that his fall from power may be imminent.
However, fast-moving events in Libya have diverted the world's attention from what in the long run may be an even more momentous event: regime change in Bahrain. While Bahrain itself may not possess vast oil and gas reserves, it is located in a region home to around 60 percent of the world's proven oil reserves and 40 percent of the world's natural gas reserves. Moreover, it is a member of the regional security organization known as the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Members of the GCC sit atop almost 40 percent of proven oil reserves, with Saudi Arabia, the swing producer in the global oil market, home to more than half of the GCC's share.
What is equally important is that the Bahraini regime shares the major characteristics of those of other members of the GCC. First, dynastic rulers -- kings, emirs, and sultans -- who were put in power by the British during the heyday of the Raj, govern all these countries. The Saudi monarchy may not fit this bill totally but it also largely owes its current control of the peninsula to British support.
Second, partially because they live in a neighborhood dominated by larger states, such as Iran and Iraq, and even more because their regimes suffer from legitimacy deficits, all the Gulf monarchies were or are clients of major Western powers, particularly of the United States. The latter provides them a security umbrella in return for valuable military bases in this strategic region. Qatar is home to the Al Udeid Air Base, which is located about 20 miles outside of the capital Doha. It is strategically important for operations in the Middle East and Afghanistan. The Al Udeid base has since 2003 supplanted the Prince Sultan base in Saudi Arabia, which until then was the Middle East's main American military air operations center. Bahrain is the headquarters for the U.S. Fifth Fleet whose primary mission is to prevent disruption of oil supplies from the Gulf by denying any hostile power control or influence over the strategic sea-lanes in the region.
American troops are also present in Kuwait and, since 2003, in large numbers in Iraq. America's visible military presence in the Gulf states is both a sign of the vulnerability of their regimes and a provocation for anti-regime forces who also tend to be anti-American in their orientation. Although the current protests in Bahrain have not demonstrated clear anti-American overtones, it is presumed that if the al-Khalifa are overthrown it will be difficult for the United States to maintain its naval base in that country.
Third, the Gulf monarchies are all in varying degrees rentier states whose regimes consider their natural -- primarily energy -- resources as family property and make little distinction between national and personal wealth. They have used these resources to buy support from largely politically apathetic subjects by turning the maxim "no taxation without representation" on its head - no taxation, therefore no representation. While Bahrain and Kuwait have at times flirted with the idea of representative institutions, these institutions when and where they exist have little if any control over the executive that is largely staffed by members of the ruling families.
Fourth, the Gulf countries have, to different degrees, used Islam as an important part of the legitimacy formula with Saudi Arabia, whose monarch calls himself the "protector of the two holy places"-- leading the way in this regard. All of them are, therefore, very vulnerable to criticism when they deviate, as they often do, from religious injunctions regarding personal moral behavior. Consequently, these regimes have to constantly don a veil of extreme hypocrisy rarely seen in other parts of the world.
Fifth, the GCC regimes, with the exception of Oman, attempt to draw their legitimacy not only from Islam but also from Sunni Islam with the Saudi and Qatari houses subscribing to the most puritanical branch of Sunni Islam. In an area that can be considered the fault line between Sunni and Shia Islam this bestows upon them a sectarian character potentially very destabilizing for the regimes themselves.
This last problem is compounded by the fact that several of these energy rich kingdoms ruled by Sunni autocrats have substantial Shia populations. In Bahrain the Shia constitute about three quarters of the population and in Kuwait they are estimated to be more than one-third of the population. Saudi Arabia has a smaller Shia minority of 10-15 percent, but this is concentrated in the oil-rich eastern region. This demographic concentration can have considerable political implications in times of turmoil in the kingdom.
As stated earlier, Bahrain shares all of these characteristics with the other Gulf monarchies. However, the problems created by these factors are felt more acutely in this tiny kingdom than in the rest of the Gulf for several reasons. First, Bahrain does not have the massive energy resources of many of the other GCC states and, therefore, its capacity to buy loyalty, even with Saudi assistance, is limited. Secondly, Bahrain, like Kuwait but unlike the other kingdoms, has experimented with representative institutions, although in a controlled fashion, and has a much more "urban" rather than "tribal" political culture compared to its neighbors. Third, and most importantly, its Shia majority feels both politically and economically deprived. Unlike Kuwait where the Shia merchant class has been incorporated into the power structure, in Bahrain the Shia have been relegated to the political and economic periphery, thus creating an underclass that has no stake in the longevity of the current system and is not afraid of engaging in confrontational politics.
This does not mean that the other GCC countries are immune to the spread of the democratic contagion. In fact, regime reactions, particularly those emanating from Riyadh, denote that the Gulf rulers are extremely concerned, if not downright scared, about their future. However, it was logical that the first spark of the democratic movement in the Gulf be lit in Bahrain because it is the weakest link in the autocratic chain in that region. The regime by its initial mishandling of the situation and ordering troops to fire indiscriminately at the protesters made matters worse for itself. Its reaction has turned the struggle for democratic reforms into a zero-sum game and escalated the demonstrators' demand from political reform to the removal of the ruling house. Its later softer line, symbolized best by the government allowing the protestors to retake Pearl Square, was aimed at healing some of the wounds inflicted upon the populace.
However, the regime compounded its folly by engineering the show of "Sunni" force in its support on Monday in front of the Al Fateh Grand Mosque in the upscale Juffair neighborhood. This seems to have hardened sectarian divisions as witnessed by the appearance for the first time of black flags, the symbols of Shia Islam, alongside the national flags in the mammoth rally staged by the democracy activists on Friday. Until then, the overwhelmingly Shia pro-democracy protesters had deliberately eschewed sectarian symbols and terminology and pitched their case in national and Bahraini terms.
If the pro-democracy movement succeeds in Bahrain it will have far-reaching consequences not only for that tiny country but, more importantly, for all the autocratic Arab rulers in the energy-rich Gulf, as well as for their external patrons and supporters. It will also have a major impact on the regional balance of power tilting it further in favor of Iran at the expense of Saudi Arabia and the United States.
Mohammed Ayoob is University Distinguished Professor of International Relations and Coordinator of the Muslim Studies Program at Michigan State University. He is also an adjunct scholar at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding (ISPU).
This article was published by Foreign Policy on February 25, 2011: