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How a broken social contract sparked Bahrain protests

The Bahrain protests go beyond the sectarian prism of Sunni versus Shiite. The ruling Al Khalifa family has been unable to provide Bahrainis the kind of interest-free loans and medical care that some of their neighbors have enjoyed.

By Raymond BarrettCorrespondent / February 21, 2011

A Bahraini antigovernment protester looks at a banner showing Bahraini prime minister Shiek Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa (top) and other Bahraini officials at the Pearl roundabout in Manama, Bahrain, Sunday. The protests in Bahrain may have resulted from the Al Khalifa family not providing Bahrainis with the social services and financial support they expect.

Hasan Jamali/AP

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It's known as the "river to the people."

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The longstanding social contract among many countries in the Persian Gulf is simple: the ruling monarchy offers free housing, health care, education, food subsidies, and a government job for life. In return, the people defer to a system of tribal autocracy that gives little or no political representation to the masses.

In short, lucre begets loyalty, and vice-versa.

But the current protests in Bahrain indicate that, in the eyes of much of the population, King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa has failed to keep his side of the unwritten social contract that binds the Gulf Cooperation Council's six sheikhdoms of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates.

Today, the "river to the people" is no longer flowing to all segments of society, with powerful consequences for the region. An estimated 10,000 Shiite protesters packed into Pearl Square in the capital Monday, continuing a week of deadly protests calling for democratic reforms from the Al Khalifa ruling family, who have ruled the Arab world’s smallest nation for more than two centuries. Neighboring Saudi Arabia has called for calm, even as its own Shiite population appears restless.

Indeed, the cause of the ongoing unrest in Bahrain goes beyond the narrow sectarian prism of Sunni versus Shiite through which politics in the Persian Gulf is generally refracted. Although the Shiite protesters demanding constitutional reform were beaten and killed on the streets of their capital by Sunni hands wielding clubs and guns, the reason was not religious.

When oil wealth flows, all is well

In Qatar, Kuwait, and Abu Dhabi, the Al Thanis, the Al Sabahs, and the Al Nahayans, respectively, preside over small populations and economies augmented with pneumatic reserves of oil or natural gas. As such, money flows and there is little demand to change the status quo.

In Kuwait, a man can get a $250,000 interest-free loan (repaid in tiny installments over a lifetime) to buy a house; in Qatar, someone diagnosed with cancer could be sent along with a family member to London for medical treatment – and the entire tab is picked up by the state; in Abu Dhabi, if a student gets accepted to Harvard Medical School, the relevant ministry may offer the student a scholarship with full living expenses.

This system of tribal governance has preserved the Gulf Cooperation Council's states as oases of relative calm amid a region that has witnessed violent internal power struggles since the end of the colonial era. However, a rising youth population coupled with high unemployment is threatening to tip the delicate high-wire act that the various ruling families have been practicing.

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