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Riding the Arab Tiger

2011 February 17
by Paul Vallely

Things could yet get very nasty in Bahrain. Pro-democracy protestors, fuelled by the precedents in Tunisia and Egypt, there are showing a high level of confidence and determination. The royal family appears to think that a brutal attack on sleeping demonstrators is the answer.

For the West the old dilemma of whether it prefers stability over democracy is particularly pointed here. Bahrain is a major strategic toehold in a region that holds about three-fifths of the world’s oil reserves. It is home to the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet. Its ruling Sunni dynasty is closely allied with Saudi Arabia’s pro-Western regime and is seen as a bulwark against the influence of Shi’ite Iran in the Gulf. It has been a close ally, or client state, of Britain since the 17th century.

What further complicates the issue is that, as in Iraq under Saddam, a majority Shia population is ruled over by a Sunni minority which gets the better jobs and housing. Concerns about democracy have been longstanding and there are fears of religious divisions deepening, perhaps fermented by Iran, as the political crisis escalates.

This week is the tenth anniversary of a move by the Shiite majority to demand greater democracy. In 2001 the population voted overwhelmingly for a national reform charter designed to end rule by an absolute monarch. A parliament was then established, but it is largely a sham; it can vote only on laws drafted by a council of ministers appointed by the royal family; the prime minister is the king’s uncle. The current protestors want a fully elected parliament and the release of political prisoners.

The West must be careful not to side with oppressors in the Middle East. The British Foreign Secretary visited Bahrain this month but did not call openly for serious change. Behind the scenes London must do that. There is always increased risk of instability when countries move from closed to open societies. But that is necessary for long-term gain.

Bahrain is trying to diversify its heavily oil-dependent economy. That means opening itself up to deeper integration with the outside world and addressing the high unemployment rate among its Shia majority. Increasing democracy may be unpredictable. But the alternative is a specious stability in which the regime, and its Western allies, will suffer far more when the domestic political pressure cooker blows as, without reform, it inevitably will.

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