While the Bahrainis Talk, the Saudis Are Leaning In, Listening

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“Bahrain is the tent pole that holds Saudi Arabia up,” a wealthy Shia businessman told me. “If Bahrain falls, so does Saudi.” We were sitting on the deck of his yacht, overlooking the sliver of gray water that separated the island nation of Bahrain from its Saudi sponsor. When I asked him if I could quote him by name, he responded, “only if you want me dead.” He stared out across the water. So did I. If you squinted hard enough, you could almost make out Saudi Arabia’s ruling family panicking over the growing pro-democracy movement here in Bahrain.

First: the requisite boilerplate, for those (like myself) who couldn’t have pointed to Bahrain on a map more than a month ago, when activists caught the Tunisian bug and tried to launch their own revolution. For lack of a catchy color or flower, let’s call it the Lulu Revolution, after the Arabic word for pearl, and the capital city’s central landmark that has become the locus of anti-government protests. Population: 738,000, of which half a million are citizens (like the rest of the Gulf states, they import a lot of labor). Of that half a million an estimated 65% are Shiite, the rest more or less, Sunni. The royal family is Sunni. The protesters are largely Shiite, who are generally worse off economically than their Sunni compatriots. So while the Lulu revolution is mostly about giving Bahrainis the power to choose their leaders (the prime minister, who is the King’s uncle, has been in power since 1971), it is also divided along sectarian lines.

I don’t need to tell you about Iran and Saudi Arabia’s ongoing cold war. Suffice to say, they aren’t exactly friends. Now, Bahrain’s Shias will be the first to tell you that they have nothing to do with Iran. They are Arabs first, and Shias second. Their religious leaders look to Najaf in Iraq, before Qom in Iran. Of course that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a small corner of Ahmadinejad’s tiny heart that isn’t celebrating this most recent demonstration of Shia street power—as long as it isn’t on the streets of Tehran. But Saudi isn’t likely to enjoy the thought of a Shia vanguard on its doorstep, no matter if it sees itself as Arab or Persian.

Now, about the only thing Saudi Arabia’s rulers fear more than Shia Iran is democracy. Not least because the population of its eastern province, home to critical oil fields, is 30% Shia. “If suddenly you see an empowered Shia majority here [in Bahrain], you don’t think you are going to see Shia demands in Saudi’s eastern province for similar treatment there?” asks a western diplomat, who can’t be named because that was the condition of our interview, and not because he will be killed. “That can’t be a happy outlook for them.”

Indeed. And once the Shia start demanding rights, there goes the neighborhood. Bahrain’s pro-reform protesters want a lot of things, but one of the main demands is a constitutional monarchy. Like Britain. They want a figurehead who guards tradition, and a parliament that can be held accountable. They want to choose their prime minister, and they want to be able to boot out corrupt leaders. They want transparency on how the nation’s wealth is spent. Some say on the budget. And now you can see why the Saudis are getting nervous.

So what, right? Let them be nervous. Well, not so fast. Bahrain’s GDP is about $25 billion a year divided roughly between four sectors: financial services, government, travel and tourism, and industry. Banking is mostly offshore accounts for Saudis and Kuwaitis, and has $250 billion in assets. Ninety percent of the tourism sector comes from Saudis, Emiratis and Kuwaitis who come for Bahrain’s malls, movies, restaurants, bars and, ahem, other services not easily available elsewhere in the gulf. The government sector is about $5 billion, of which $4 billion is in revenue from oil donated by the Saudis (Bahrain has some oil, not much, and makes most of its money refining other countries’ oil). Think of it as a very expensive, and tight leash. The take away? Nearly ¾ of Bahrain’s GDP is either directly, or indirectly tied to Saudi Arabia. “Saudi Arabia is not just a big neighbor to the west,” says my anonymous diplomat. “This country, I think it would be safe to say, would not exist as it is without Saudi Arabia.”

So as Bahrain’s government and opposition leaders sit down to hash out their differences this week, you can very well imagine that Saudi is leaning in to listen. And influence. Don’t expect Bahrain’s revolution to go anywhere the Saudis don’t want to visit too.