Friday, March 18, 2011

Bahrain rebellion could prove calamitous for the West: Saudi Arabia's support for the Gulf state risks drawing Iran into the conflict

The issue occupying diplomats at the UN yesterday was how best to respond to the Libyan crisis. But an even graver threat to our future prosperity and security is unfolding in the tiny Gulf state of Bahrain.

At first glance, the decision by Bahrain's Sunni royal family to call in the Saudis to help quell an anti-government revolt by Shia protesters might seem the logical outcome to a dispute that showed no sign of a peaceful resolution. Ever since the protesters made the Pearl roundabout the epicentre of their campaign in mid-February, the ruling family has made strenuous efforts to meet their demands. Sheikh Salman al-Khalifa, the Crown Prince, has repeatedly sought to open a dialogue with the demonstrators, with a view to addressing their concerns. But the more the royal family has attempted to reach out, the more intransigent the demands of the protest movement have become.

When I visited the country with William Hague, the Foreign Secretary, in early February, the first rumblings of discontent were evident. Leaders of the Bahraini Shia, who constitute a clear majority of the population, were seeking to replicate the anti-government protests then taking place in Egypt's Tahrir Square.

But unlike the Cairo protests, which demanded the removal of President Hosni Mubarak, I was assured by our diplomats that the Bahrainis' agenda was more modest. They weren't calling for the overthrow of the Sandhurst-educated King Hamad al-Khalifa; they were more interested in reform than revolution. Like many protesters throughout the Arab world, their main concern was to improve their economic lot. As one diplomat put it: "The protests are anti-government rather than anti-Khalifa." (read more)