Saudi Arabia, jolted by Egypt, alarmed by Bahrain

Published: February 17, 2011

Bahraini protesters wave their national flag. PHOTO: AFP

DUBAI: Saudi Arabia, shaken by the loss of a key ally in Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, must now worry that protests in neighbouring ally Bahrain may embolden its own Shiite population to push for reform.

Thousands of overwhelmingly Shiite protesters, inspired by uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia, took to Bahrain’s streets this week demanding more say in the Gulf Arab kingdom where a Sunni Muslim family rules over a majority Shiite population.

Bahraini police stormed a protest camp in the island state’s capital early on Thursday, killing three people. Soldiers in armoured vehicles then fanned out across Manama.

Risks of instability in Saudi Arabia, where Shiites make up about 15 per cent of the population, would soar if the opposition in Bahrain toppled the ruling al-Khalifa family, analysts said.

“(Saudi) Shiites will seek greater social, economic, and religious equality,” said Ayham Kamel, an analyst at Washington-based Eurasia Group. “This will present serious long-term challenges to the (Saudi) royal family, particularly as they prepare for a generational transition of power.”

Bahrain was to host a meeting of Gulf foreign ministers on Thursday, showing the region’s alarm that popular unrest rocking other Arab states could spread even to Gulf oil producers.

Most of Saudi Arabia’s Shiites live in the Eastern province, home to most of the kingdom’s oil wealth.

Regional heavyweight Saudi Arabia and the United States, which bases its Fifth Fleet in Manama, both view Bahrain and the al-Khalifa family as a bulwark against Shiite Iran.

“We would expect Saudi Arabia to provide logistical and military support to the Bahraini monarchy if needed,” said Farouk Soussa, Middle East chief economist at Citi in Dubai.

Bahrain regime change unlikely

He said Bahrain could see prolonged confrontation but regime change was highly unlikely because of Saudi backing for the ruling family in a close neighbour in which it has key interests.

“Economically, Saudi has enormous leverage as it is custodian of most of Bahrain’s oil production, which is derived from the shared Abu Saafa oil field,” Soussa said, of the offshore oil produced by Saudi Aramco and shared with Bahrain’s refiner.

The US naval base in Manama is vital for Riyadh, providing US military protection of Saudi oil installations and the Gulf waterways on which its oil exports depend, without any Western troops present on the soil of the kingdom, Islam’s birthplace.

Saudi Arabia is unlikely to move quickly and will wait to see how Bahrain, accustomed to low-level unrest, handles the latest protests. Bahraini security forces have clashed sporadically with young Shiite protesters since the mid-1990s.

“Beneath it all, they are likely to be giving the Bahrain monarchy any support that it needs,” said Gala Riani, senior Middle East analyst with IHS Global Insight in London.

“Should it become clear that the regime is in danger, the Saudis will step in.”

The two states, linked by a 15-mile causeway, have close political and economic ties and the kingdom is Bahrain’s largest financial backer. Many Shiites in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern province have family ties with Bahraini co-religionists.

“Saudis consider themselves the godfather of the Bahraini regime,” said Ibtisam al-Qitbi, a UAE-based political analyst.

“There are seeds for disturbance (in Saudi) but you have that security apparatus which is very strong, and the political environment is very, very tight.

Reader Comments (8)

  • Ilayangudi
    Feb 18, 2011 - 8:28AM

    The Arab Revolt of 2011 is unabated. Protests continue in such unlikely places as Libya, why not Saudi Arabia? Some ME rulers do some cosmetic changes just to please Washington, and the oil companies.

    The Egyptian virus of 2011, however, overcame the façade of democracy erected by Bahrain rulers and their ilk.. The beneficiaries of oil piracy have been the royal family, and a crony clique. Bahrain monarch imported 50,000 foreign workers to reconfigure the demographic landscape.

    This Bahranization policy was a smokescreen to pit the (local) labor against the (foreign) labor. Locals feel it. Young people are at the forefront of the revolts because they have the most to lose from the subsidies, and from the policies that mortgage their futures.

    These are also, therefore, convulsions against the overpaid agents (bankers) of multi-national corporations. When will the Arab people rule themselves, and not be ruled by one-party dictators and monarchs who are beholden to bond markets and foreign capitals?

    When will the economies of the Arab region be able to sustain their populations rather than fatten the Banks in the Atlantic world, and offer massive trust funds for the dictators and the monarchs? How much? I forgot

    40 billion US Dollars in the Swiss account of Mubarak? My God? Cursed with oil, the Arab world has seen little economic diversification and almost no attempt to use the oil wealth to engender balanced social development for the people.

    Instead, the oil money is given in the hands of foreign banks , World Bank, IMF ( real sharks) to provide credit for overheated consumers in the United States and to provide banks with vast funds. The World Bank pays the oil Sheiks 0.5% interest per annum and charges 5% on poor countries like Bangladesh.

    The oil money also went toward the real estate boom in the Gulf, and the gambling tables and escort services of Monaco(the Las Vegas of Europe, which has another decrepit monarch, Albert II, at its head) Disgrace to Islamic social justice. Pakistan could have been stronger than Japan if the Saudis had invested this money there or in Indian subcontinent.
    Will we ever learn?Recommend

  • Ilayangudi
    Feb 18, 2011 - 9:15AM

    Husni Mubark’s fall has shaken Saudi Arabia to the core . The Saudi rulers must now worry that protests in neighbouring ally Bahrain may embolden its own Shiite population to push for reform and democracy.

    Most of Saudi Arabia’s Shiites live in the oil rich Eastern province. They make up 15% of Saudi population, and may cause immense troubles to oppressive and fundamentalist Saudi rulers should they become Jihadists. Will the US intervene? Surely it will. After all Saudi’s invesment inthe US exceeds 2000 Billion US Dollars.

    Regional heavyweight: the most fundamentalists Saudi Arabia and liberal United States both view Bahrain and the al-Khalifa family as a beach head against Shiite Iran. The fifth fleet is stationed at Bahrain which is the nightclub of American forces.

    Will Saudi backing for the ruling family in a close neighbour save them or make both fall?
    Saudis consider themselves the godfather of the Bahraini regime,

    There are seeds for disturbance (in Saudi) but the Saudi security apparatus is very strong, and the political environment is very, very tight. They plot against us and we plot against them and so says Allah swt in the Quran.Recommend

  • bvindh
    Feb 18, 2011 - 3:29PM

    In case of Arab nations, it will always be garbage in and garbage outRecommend

  • Hamood
    Feb 18, 2011 - 7:40PM

    Good. Saudi Arabia is the root cause of terrorism not only in Pakistan but all over the world.Recommend

  • Alick
    Feb 19, 2011 - 12:30AM

    @Hamood: its not Saudi its always Iran……who wants greater share in ME region. Destabilizing Pakistan, creating divide in Bahrain, supplying weapons to Iraq Shiite parties. InshaAllah Bahrain protests eventually fail, because its not against corrupt leadership its against Sunnis. And i can assure you the wave of this sectarian violence will be seen than in every country resulting in killing of many Sunnis & ShiasRecommend

  • sharjeel khan
    Feb 19, 2011 - 7:15PM

    @Alick:
    do u have any evidence of it. it has always been the wahabi minded rulers of saudi arabia who nourished terrorists like taliban,,,,, the only true leader of muslim ummah(rahbar e azam) is grand ayatollah seyyed ali khamenai,,Recommend

  • Tariq Ahmad
    Feb 20, 2011 - 9:50AM

    Time for Pakistanis to rise upRecommend

  • sanam
    Feb 24, 2011 - 6:29PM

    CIA caught red handed killing pakistani citizens,people can rise against ugly designs of power sharing politics.and people will see the secular south asia,cheeeeeeeeeeeeeers Recommend

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