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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.

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Bahrain riddled by poor management

Two nations where this ruling bargain has come under particular pressure are Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. Bahrain, with little petroleum wealth, has been unable to provide the gold-plated social security programs of its neighbors and has exacerbated this deficit by systematically redistributing whatever wealth and opportunity there is primarily to a Sunni elite.

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Habiba Hamid, an editorial writer at the Abu Dhabi-based newspaper The National, believes that while sectarian issues are an important factor in Bahraini society, the Al Khahlifas need to do a better job managing their kingdom.

“Bahrain is in debt, and while protests won't bring back the oil, work on land reform and participation needs to take place. Sectarian relics of the colonial era still vomit up issues, but it really comes down to solid governance work.”

Saudi Arabia fails to spread wealth

Saudi Arabia sees the opposite happening, but to the same effect. The world’s largest oil exporter (earning some $150 billion in 2009) has witnessed a population explosion in the past 35 years – from 7 million people in 1975 to 25 million people today. As a result, there is increased competition for the resources of the state, and the Shiite minority has been excluded somewhat.

Shiites, however, are swiftly accused of sectarianism if they question the social order. Sunni rulers questioning the loyalty of their Shiite subjects is not an unheard-of tactic to counter accusations of internal religious bias.

And now, with Bahrain in upheaval just 20 miles off Saudi Arabia's shore, Riyadh's Sunni leaders are likely to attempt to cast the protests in Manama's Pearl Square in sectarian terms, as well.

But such accusations of disloyalty and favoring Iran over their homeland are misplaced in the case of the Bahrain protesters, says Toby Jones, a Gulf specialist at Rutgers University in New Jersey and the author of "Desert Kingdom: How Oil and Water Forged Modern Saudi Arabia."

“Seeing [the Bahrain protests] in these sectarians terms plays into the hands of the Saudis. They know [the protesters] are not taking marching orders from Iran.”

Creating safety valves

Yet, say analysts, countries can create safety valves to ease the possibility of sectarian conflict and political discontent. This has been evident to some degree in the freewheeling emirate of Dubai.

Like Bahrain, Dubai’s oil reserves are minimal. Furthermore, about 40 percent of the local population are ajam – Arabs who trace their heritage to Iran. Yet Dubai’s erstwhile Persian émigrés have not been systematically disenfranchised like their Bahraini cousins and over time have acquired significant wealth and social standing.

A succession of Maktoum rulers, while certainly no great advocates of democracy, have long allowed at least some non-nationals the opportunity to “make it” in Dubai and rise the above the servitude (no matter how low or how gilded) that is the lot of many such foreigners in the Gulf.

In Bahrain's case, Professor Jones insists that reform is vital in the long run: “Without reform, there is no chance of better governance.”


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