Social unrest hits the Gulf

14 February 2011

Protests in Bahrain raise fears that dissent could spread to neighbouring GCC states

After a low-key start in some of the tiny villages across the island, Bahrain’s ‘Day of Rage’ hit the capital, Manama, on 14 February hard. Demonstrators buoyed by the protests in Egypt and Tunisia clashed with police as they tried to get a series of grievances heard by the government.

By 16 February, two protesters had been killed and demonstrators had taken control of the Pearl roundabout in central Manama, claiming this was their Tahrir Square.

The tiny island state is now the centre of attention in the region as observers watch to see if the protests will continue to spread through the Arab world into the oil-rich GCC, where civil unrest is rare.

Bahrain is more aware than most of the need for reform and sees itself as a leader of change in the region. “Bahrain is like a microcosm of the region,” said Sheikh Khalid al-Khalifa, foreign minister on 14 February, before the clashes with police peaked later that day.

“This is a time of important transformation. We will strive to make sure that the Arab world goes in the right direction.”

Underlying financial issues

Although more progressive than its neighbours, Bahrain’s weaker finances and uneasy relations between its Sunni and Shia populations have made the kingdom a flashpoint in the past.

The latest protests came on the 10th anniversary of the introduction of the National Action Charter (NAC), which was set up to introduce democratic reforms in Bahrain. “This should be a time of celebration, but instead we are on the streets,” says a demonstrator.

This is not about money … We are protesting because we want more rights, freedom and jobs

Mohamed Khalid, Bahraini protester

The protesters list a series of concerns behind their actions, including unemployment, discrimination by the Sunni rulers against the Shia majority, the naturalisation of foreigners and the lack of housing. “A lot of people were disappointed before, but after what happened in Egypt, there is an angry mood and also optimism. They will have to listen to us now,” says Eman al-Hubashi, an unemployed 26-year-old Bahraini.

In a move interpreted by many as an attempt to quell the protests before they began, King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa announced that every Bahraini family would receive a gift of BD1,000 ($2,650). He also announces plans to liberalise media laws. The gesture is a typical method of appeasing citizens in the GCC, although member states with greater oil wealth than Bahrain can afford more generous, albeit indirect, payouts. Several are already paying out large sums to alleviate the impact of food price inflation.

The message from the people of Bahrain, however, is that this may not work anymore. “The BD1,000 is an insult. This is not about money. We are not protesting because we want more government handouts. We are protesting because we want more rights, freedom and jobs,” says Mohamed Khalid, a protester in the village of Karzakan, on the western coast of Bahrain. “I will take the money and still go out and protest,” says Al-Hubashi.

Bahrain state crackdown

Although the foreign minister said peaceful protests would be tolerated, the police were aggressive in their crackdown on any public gathering. Tear gas, rubber bullets and shotguns were all used on protesters during the 13-14 February demonstrations. Within minutes of gathering, police were dispersing groups of people. Even a protest of about 50 people in the small village of Nuweidrat, south of Manama that started at around 6am was broken up by police almost immediately. Within 24 hours of the demonstrations starting, the first death was recorded, while many others suffered injuries in clashes with police.

As MEED went to press it was unclear if the momentum that followed the resignation of Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak would be sapped by the response of the authorities in Bahrain. There was talk of the protests continuing in Bahrain and even a planned disruption of the Formula 1 races in March.

If the protesters stay on the streets in Bahrain, it could give citizens elsewhere in the region the courage to organise their own demonstrations.

But a Saudi banker based in Riyadh says although most locals supported the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia, they have little appetite for one of their own.

Small gatherings took place in Riyadh in early February and protests occurred in Jeddah in late January, after floods killed 10 people. However, there are no signs of a more concentrated protest movement taking inspiration from events in Tunisia and Egypt.

Elsewhere in the region, Qatar and the UAE, with their small populations and hydrocarbons-fuelled prosperity are unlikely candidates for a popular uprising. In Kuwait, where democratic elections already occur, demonstrations are planned for 8 March with demands that the cabinet be replaced. Meanwhile, smallscale protests were staged in Oman in late January.

“Obviously, everyone is watching what is going on with some trepidation, but we don’t expect to see things spread much further than they already have,” says a diplomat in Saudi Arabia.

The protests have been united by broadly the same issues across the Arab world. Unemployment, a repressive state, human rights abuses and corruption are cited by activists as the reason why people have taken to the streets. Oil wealth, repression and state handouts have worked so far to quell dissent in the GCC, but cannot continue forever.

With Kuwait the only other GCC country currently set for protests, the outcome in Bahrain will be instrumental in determining if the Jasmine Revolution, as the events of Tunisia have become known, will gain further traction.

The Bahraini government is convinced that it will not give in to protesters’ demands as it has already put the country on a reform path. As a result, protests will be tolerated. “I don’t see that protests could spread from Bahrain to the rest of the Gulf, but what kind of effects we will see is impossible to say,” says Foreign Minister Al-Khalifa.

The people on the streets see things differently however, as do opposition leaders. “Egypt has shown that a small percentage of the population can make a difference,” says Jasim Husain, a Bahraini member of parliament for the opposition group Al-Wefaq.

Authorities are watching for signs of activism in other GCC countries. A teacher was arrested in the UAE in early February, after giving a speech in a mosque where he expressed support for the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia.

Bahrain enjoys more freedom of expression than elsewhere in the Gulf, where social media sites are monitored much more closely and signs of unrest quashed in their early stages.

Double-edged sword

The outcome of the Jasmine Revolution will also go some way to determining how much other states follow in their footsteps. So far a messy transition has been avoided and optimism remains. Protesters in Bahrain talk enthusiastically about what has happened in Tunisia. If the change demanded by the people shows real signs of actually taking place, the attractiveness of the revolution will increase.

But revolutions have their downside too. Economists have already lowered growth forecasts for Egypt, some from 5.3 per cent to 3.7 per cent.

With the economic recovery still fragile in many parts of the GCC, a revolution will only serve to exacerbate some of the conditions that have driven people onto the streets. It is also still unclear who will end up ruling Tunisia and Egypt, and in what direction they will take them. As that reality sinks in, it will be harder to motivate Gulf Arabs onto the streets with the uncertainty of where their protests will end.

Bahrain’s crackdown could halt the advance of the revolution, but the combination of repression and handouts that has kept most of the GCC stable for so long cannot continue forever.

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