ROVING EYE All about Pearl
roundabout By Pepe Escobar
The historic, Great 2011 Arab revolt is
relentless - those initial jasmine winds from the
Maghreb turning into sandstorms east and west and
now blanketing all latitudes across Northern
Africa and the Middle East all the way to
Southwest Asia, in Iran.
the key focus is Libya - check out this cracking
where "send the devil back to hell" is directed at
the eternal Gaddafi. Sunday the focus is Morocco -
check out this video
of what young - and old - Moroccans want for their
One doesn't need to be a weatherman
to see which way the wind, swirling with
Gandhiesque civil disobedience, blows across the
whole Umma al
Arabiya (the Arab nation). And that includes
hugely strategic Bahrain.
This king is
speechless Bahrain is a tiny archipelago
of 1.2 million people separated from Saudi Arabia
by a causeway - 65% of Bahrain is Shi'ite. But the
al-Khalifa dynasty in power is Sunni. Most
Shi‘ites are poor, marginalized and discriminated
against - a rural proletariat. And they have been
squeezed further as a mass of "imported" Sunnis -
upwards of 50,000 from southern Pakistan,
Balochistan, Jordan and Yemen - have been
naturalized. Add to it a classic divide and rule
strategy - local workforce pitted against foreign
workforce; 54% of the population are guest
workers, nearly half of these from southwest
King Hamad, in power since 2002 and
a graduate of Cambridge University, is a wily
ruler. There's an elected parliament, women do
vote, and some political prisoners have been
released. That's what Washington calls
"stability". But the king is terrified to death of
the Shi'ite majority; no wonder virtually everyone
in the Ministry of Defense and the police is an
Bahrain does not float
in oil like Abu Dhabi, or gas like Qatar. But the
development model was definitely demented
neo-liberal Dubai - oil fueling real estate
speculation. Winners: the al-Khalifa family and
selected cronies. Losers: first and foremost,
Shi'ites. Then there were the aftershocks of the
2008 financial crisis. The government cut
subsidies of food and fuel - while the agents and
minions of global elites continued to enrich
themselves. People were further enraged. To top it
off, the US 5th Fleet - a self-described cop on
the beat - is berthed in Bahrain.
the roundabout The center of the action,
the theater of dreams, Bahrain's Tahrir Square is
the Pearl roundabout in Manama, smack in the
middle of the main shopping malls, next to the
main highway, and close to the financial center.
Here one can watch
mobile phone footage of this week's protests.
Since Tuesday thousands of people had been
spending the night in a new Tahrir Square-style
tent city, already calling the roundabout
"martyr's square", and multiplying to thousands
during the day. Every weekend in the Muslim world
- Thursday and Friday - Saudis abandon Wahhabi
suffocation in droves to relax in the malls of
Manama. So Saudi Shi'ites are supposed to be
increasing the number of protesters.
Although there's the odd Sunni, the
protesters in Bahrain are overwhelmingly Shi'ite.
And they are extremely well organized; they even
have a media center, and there are first aid tents
everywhere. The monarchy and the government still
don't know what hit them. This is no
Oscar-nominated King's Speech; this king is
actually speechless. They even went pre-emptive,
with the government last week giving US$2,660 to
every family after earlier increasing food
subsidies, and hiring Western public relations
firms to advise on damage control.
came the usual. Riot police using the proverbial
tear gas and rubber bullets. Internet slowing to a
crawl - with government employees openly admitting
they are following official orders.
Compare it to the Pearl roundabout, where
protesters set up a projector and a screen to
follow the global media coverage, and a canteen to
distribute food. Tweets from Manama extol "the
level of civility and self-organization". A
coalition of secular, leftist protesters is being
formed. It was all going the Tahrir way.
Then came this Thursday, in the dead of
night, a few hours after the Pearl roundabout -
affectionately called Lulu by locals - was still
packed with thousands, chanting their lungs out,
even through the Egyptian national anthem. By 3
am, with no warning, hundreds of riot police
staged a crackdown, firing rubber bullets and tear
gas, beating a lot of people up, and totally
clearing Lulu by 4am. Many were asleep in the tent
city, including women and children. At least two
protesters - perhaps three - were killed.
What will that accomplish? The protests
won't go away. Essentially, the people of Bahrain
want a constitutional monarchy; fair elections;
the release of all political prisoners; and the
resignation of Prime Minister Sheikh Khalifa bin
Salman al-Khalifa (the king's uncle, in power for
no less then 39 years since independence from
Britain), as well as the entire parliament.
Up to now the concept that the king should
go was a second thought; now it's coming to the
forefront. How could it not; after all, the king
only distributed his largesse to Sunnis. And after
this crackdown people will be even more energized.
Tweets from Bahrainis have been insisting this is
a movement by the people for the people, no matter
their sect. And they have refused to call it a
Shi'ite uprising, claiming this is about Bahrainis
fighting for a new constitution and respect for
human rights, not revolution or regime change. But
that may change in a minute, especially after this
vicious crackdown; see Egypt three weeks ago and
Iran early this week.
The main Shi'ite
party, al-Wifaq, had already lost any belief in
the current democratic facade, withdrawing from
the elected lower house of parliament (18 seats
from a total of 40) in protest against the
previous crackdown (at least two people were
killed, and dozens injured).
power in Bahrain rests with the appointed upper
house and King Hamad. So much for the "stability"
hailed by the US ambassador in a 2008 WikiLeaks
cable. As for US President Barack Obama, he
skipped the previous crackdown in Bahrain,
preferring to dwell on the success of Egypt's
uprising compared to crackdowns in Iran.
It's Iran vs Saudi Arabia Bahrain is the privileged scenario of a proxy
war between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Shi'ite Iran is
right across the Gulf. And Saudi Arabia is on the
other side of the causeway, boasting a Shi'ite
majority population in its eastern provinces -
where the oil is. No wonder Saudi Arabia props up
the al-Khalifa with tons of cash and security.
For decades, even before the Islamic
Revolution, Iran has insisted that the Shi'ites in
Bahrain are Iranians because the Safavid dynasty
used to occupy both margins of the Persian Gulf.
Tehran basically still considers Bahrain as an
Women in Bahrain are
closer to women in Tehran than to Saudi. They wear
traditional clothes and in many cases not a full
black chador; they drive their own sports
utility vehicles; nobody stops them or questions
them; they meet boys and men in restaurants, shops
There are plenty of schools
and a good national university - although most
women prefer to study in the US or in Lebanon. At
the same time, both Iraq's Grand Ayatollah Sistani
and Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei
are very popular in Bahrain.
So we have a
tiny Gulf kingdom where the majority, 65%
Shi'ites, do not even enjoy minority rights, with
a king who can veto what he wants and cancel
parliament at whim, living off a small oil
industry, a booming finance sector controlled by
Sunnis and foreigners, and strategic rent so
Washington can harbor its expensive
Gulf-patrolling naval toys.
No wonder this
was bound to explode - and it will.
medieval House of Saud simply cannot contemplate a
more democratic, Shi'ite-represented Bahrain -
even though it would never become a slave of
Tehran. Arab Shi'ites are very independent, they
consider themselves Arabs first, and Shi'ites
second. Most don't follow ayatollahs.
key problem is that Shi'ites defying the powers
that be in Bahrain would seduce all other minority
Gulf Arab Shi'ites, from Kuwait and the United
Arab Emirates to Saudi Arabia itself. And one
thing is certain; a really representative
Shi'ite-dominated government would mean goodbye to
the US 5th Fleet.
This could get really
messy - and it certainly will. If protests do
reach an Egyptian fever level - crackdown or not -
Saudi Arabia will enter the fray to keep the
al-Khalifa in power. Rumors swirl that Saudi
police has already crossed the causeway to combat
The Saudis, like obedient
vassals, after all are fighting for the interests
of the US naval base. And the circus must go on -
there's a Formula 1 race coming. One thing is
certain; Shi'ites will put up one hell of a fight.
And sooner rather than later, they will be back
with a vengeance at the Pearl roundabout.