One region, different standards - Mahir Ali - Wednesday 30th March 2011

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ONE Middle Eastern intervention makes the headlines every day. The other barely rates a mention. The first is ostensibly aimed at protecting civilians and at facilitating change, the second at safeguarding the status quo.
Libya’s Muammar Qadhafi has been told he must go. Bahrain’s ruling Al Khalifa family, on the other hand, must stay. Some Arabs, one could be forgiven for assuming, are worthier of democracy and civil rights than others.
Yet the degree of hypocrisy may not be as great as it seems. After all, while the future of Tunisia and Egypt remains unwritten, there can be little reason to doubt that the US and its allies would prefer to preserve the basic structures of the Ben Ali and Mubarak regimes, albeit with new figureheads and, if possible, less visible signs of oppression and the odd concession to pluralism.
From their point of view, the ideal outcome in Bahrain would be similar: a few nods in the direction of cosmetic reform to placate the restive segments of society, but not much more than that — and certainly nothing that could jeopardise Bahrain’s crucial strategic relationship with the US, especially its status as a home for the Fifth Fleet. The trouble, of course, is the impossibility of rearrangements that could be passed off as regime change.
At best the prime minister, in situ for four decades, could be replaced. But he is the king’s uncle, and even if he could be persuaded, without occasioning a family split, to step aside, his successor would inevitably be another Al Khalifa.
That US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton felt obliged earlier this month to mildly berate the regime in Manama for its transgressions against mostly peaceful protesters was obviously in large part a consequence of not wishing the contrast with western actions in Libya to seem too stark. It is highly unlikely that the decision by Saudi Arabia and the UAE to send in troops was taken without Washington’s imprimatur, given that both are effectively American satrapies in geo-strategic terms.
The foreign troops, which are officially supposed to guard strategic installations, rather than assist in ‘crowd control’, were evidently despatched under a Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) agreement dating back to Saddam Hussein’s neighbour-threatening rhetoric in 1990, which preceded the invasion of Kuwait. (His stance was thoroughly embarrassing at the time for oil-rich states that had during the previous decade supported Iraq in its war against Iran.)
That was, however, a joint defence pact among the Gulf potentates, to the effect that the violation of any GCC state’s sovereignty would be construed as aggression against all. Internal unrest did not figure in their calculations. Bahrain does not face any external threat, although there can be little doubt its emissaries have, in private discussions, conjured up the bogey of a threat from Iran.
Tehran’s domestic and foreign policies are often indefensible, but cables from Bahrain-based US diplomats over recent years, released by WikiLeaks, suggest it hasn’t lately been going out of its way to interfere in Bahrain. The Gulf state’s majority Shia population resents the almost exclusively Sunni regime because of irrefutable instances of discrimination rather than because of imprecations from Iran.
Given that at least 70 per cent of Bahrainis are Shias, it is hardly surprising that the majority of those who are economically disadvantaged fall in the same category. But their exclusion from privilege is not just a matter of demographics.
For instance, in order to keep out Bahraini Shias from the security forces, the government regularly recruits troops from abroad — notably from Yemen and Pakistan. And whereas the value of public representation can be judged by the fact that a royally nominated senate can overrule the elected lower house, even so the constitutional arrangements sanctioning the latter preclude the possibility of a Shia majority.
It inevitably follows that the monarchy’s supporters are mostly Sunni and its opponents mostly Shia, and even though the protests launched last month weren’t, on the face of it, sectarian in nature, casting them in that light tends to become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Bahrain does not differ from its Gulf neighbours only in a demographic sense: it’s also relatively less well endowed with natural resources, and therefore poorer in per capita terms. And it has been rocked by popular unrest more frequently.
Referring to an uprising in the mid-1950s, Prof Fred Halliday noted in Arabia Without Sultans: “The British realised that Bahrain had a more advanced and therefore dangerous political character than any other Gulf country. Because the oil revenue and level of production was so much lower than in Kuwait, they had been unable to turn the indigenous population into a parasitic class with an enslaved migrant proletariat underneath. Their response was intensified repression, and a tightening of control by the Al Khalifa family.”
Notwithstanding the differences, however, Bahrain’s neighbours realise that if the Al Khalifas are toppled the Al Sauds, Al Nahyans and Al Jabers could follow. The marriage of tribal feudalism and modern capitalism cannot forever endure, but efforts will no doubt be made to preserve it for as long as petroleum remains crucial to meeting western energy needs.
In terms of totalitarian tactics, the Al Sauds in particular are more than a match for Qadhafi and his sons. But don’t expect any push for democracy in Saudi Arabia. Pressure for often intangible and invariably more or less meaningless reforms is at far as it will go.
Bahrain falls in the same basket, essentially. Were the situation to become too fraught, the US would probably begin disentangling itself from its intricate defence links with the troubled kingdom. In the interests of advancing potentially democratic interests, it would make much more sense to do so right away. But don’t hold your breath.
The Yemeni regime, meanwhile, will also continue, for as long as it is feasible, to enjoy the benefit of the doubt. Syria, on the other hand, is a much more likely candidate for the Libyan treatment.

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