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    Middle East
     Feb 18, 2011


THE 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.

This Thursday, the key focus is Libya - check out this cracking rap, 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 lives.

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 India.

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 "imported" Sunni.

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.

To 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.

Then 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).

Anyway, real 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 Iranian province.

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 and cinemas.

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.

The 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.

The 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 protests.

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.

Pepe Escobar is the author of Globalistan: How the Globalized World is Dissolving into Liquid War (Nimble Books, 2007) and Red Zone Blues: a snapshot of Baghdad during the surge. His new book, just out, is Obama does Globalistan (Nimble Books, 2009).

He may be reached at pepeasia@yahoo.com.

(Copyright 2011 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)


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5. The Internet bubble in Middle East politics

6. Erdogan gets a fraternal welcome

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8. Market will out

9. US and Pakistan square off

10. A genius and an Indian World Cup summer

(24 hours to 11:59pm ET, Feb 16, 2011)

 
 



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