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Posted at 11:36 AM ET, 03/13/2011

Bahrain and Saudi Arabia: Two kingdoms in turmoil

By Jennifer Rubin

The Wall Street Journal reported Saturday:

Hundreds of protesters demonstrated Friday in two eastern Saudi Arabian cities, a day after police broke up a march in that region.

But despite calls for protest in Riyadh, no demonstrators could be seen amid a stepped-up police presence here.

While mostly avoiding a direct confrontation with protesters in those Eastern Province cities, the Sunni Saudi monarchy appeared to be taking no chances in its effort to keep the antigovernment wave from spreading to the world's largest exporter of crude oil.

About 500 protesters, mainly Shiite Muslims who make up a large part of the population in the region, demonstrated in Al-Hofuf, in the Eastern Province alongside the country's major oil field Ghawar.

They called for the release of prisoners held without charges, said Ibrahim al-Mugaiteeb, president of Human Rights First Society. There was no gunfire or clashes with police who stood by, Mr. al-Mugaiteeb said. At least 10 people were arrested, witnesses said.

Meanwhile, its neighbor Bahrain erupted in protests once again:

Clashes between demonstrators and progovernment loyalists left hundreds injured in Bahrain on Friday, in the worst outbreak of violence here since the military was ordered off the streets nearly three weeks ago.

Conflicting reports centered on whether police had used rubber bullets to disperse protesters, something the government vehemently denied.

The violence came hours before U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates paid a surprise visit Friday to Bahrain in a show of support for the island kingdom's royal family. Bahrain, which holds a strategic position in the Persian Gulf, hosts the headquarters of the U.S. Fifth Fleet -- a home to 3,000 military personnel who oversee 30 naval ships and some 30,000 sailors.

It seems that demands for freedom can't be easily quashed. Nevertheless, it's important to distinguish between the Saudi and Bahrain situations. As for Saudi Arabia, we should not exaggerate the threat to the monarchy. Jonathan Schanzer of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies tells me, "Large-scale protests may yet erupt in Saudi. If and when they do, they will likely include both Shia and Sunni, if the ongoing Facebook campaign is any indication. However, the lead up to the "day of rage" slated for 3/11 in Saudi Arabia was overblown by many analysts."

A vet­eran Middle East hand concurs: "I don't see any revolution in Saudi Arabia. There, the problem lies in the Eastern Province, and this is linked to the troubles in Bahrain, for both are majority Shia." Even if not on the brink of collapse the Saudi regime has a choice: merely repress demonstrations or begin a process of gradual reform.

Much more troubling is the situation in Bahrain. The Middle East vet­eran e-mails: "Bahrain seems to me in very deep trouble. The hope is that somehow cooler heads in the royal family and among the Shia leadership can work out progress toward a constitutional monarchy. If that fails, disaster looms. Repression by force by the King will leave the place a powder keg with constant demonstrations and low-level violence, which inter alia will ruin the economy. If the Saudis intervene, it means a kind of colonial war against the Shia and means even more violence; the country will be lost. All that helps only Iran."

The U.S. dilemma was perfectly illustrated last week. Gates's visit turned into a sticky situation in which Gates tried to walk the line between advocating reform and sticking with an essential ally that is home to the Fifth Fleet.

Mr. Gates's visit -- intended as a show of support for Bahrain's king -- was instantly complicated by Friday's violence. The defense secretary had been expected to take on an unusual diplomatic role, delivering a message of support to the ruling family, while encouraging leaders to engage in dialogue with the opposition.

"Bahrain is a front-line state in a regional competition with Iran," said a senior defense official. "It's a very, very important strategic partner."

While U.S. officials are skeptical about claims that Iran is behind the demonstrations, they do see potential for Iran to reap strategic dividends from regional unrest.

"We are concerned that the longer this crisis prolongs, the more an opportunity there might be for Iran to create mischief," the senior defense official said. "I don't think we see them as the hidden hand behind this."

The king of Bahrain, Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, has a window, however brief, to demonstrate that the protestors can obtain greater political freedom and reform without tearing the kingdom apart. If he does not make the most of his opportunity, he may well follow Hosni Mubarak and Ben Ali into an early retirement. The Obama administration, which had not pushed for democratization for two years in the Middle East, should use whatever sway it has to prevent a conflagration -- and an opening for Iran.

By Jennifer Rubin  | March 13, 2011; 11:36 AM ET
Categories:  foreign policy  
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