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