Doyle McManus: Rattling the palace windows in the Persian Gulf

It’s not easy promoting democracy and defending monarchies at the same time.

But that’s the awkward position the Obama administration finds itself in these days in the Arab world, where many of the countries we consider our best friends — Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Morocco and Bahrain, to name a few — are ruled by families that seized power in the tribal past and hold on to it by virtue of heredity.

The optimists’ argument has been that these could be “modernizing monarchies.” With luck, the royals could turn anachronism into a virtue, maintaining stability through their traditional roots, gaining legitimacy through good government and gently nudging their societies ever so gradually toward some local form of parliamentary democracy.

But that’s always been easier said than done. The monarchs, being monarchs, tend to err on the side of stability, not democracy. So when gale-force winds sweep the Arab world, as they have after the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, they rattle the palace windows.


The latest case in point is Bahrain, the smallest of the Persian Gulf states at only about one-third the size of Orange County, but important well beyond its size. Bahrain’s ruling Khalifa family has been an enthusiastic U.S. ally. Our Navy’s gulf fleet has its headquarters in a suburb of the Bahraini capital, Manama. Even more important, Bahrain is a virtual satellite of Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest oil exporter. Saudis drive across a 15-mile-long causeway for weekend breaks in a country that allows alcohol and tolerates prostitution. They also use Manama as a banking center, and they like having the U.S. Navy there — not on Saudi territory but nearby.

In the eyes of the Obama administration, Bahrain was a model “modernizing monarchy.” Its royals attended American schools, effusively welcomed visiting U.S. officials and declared themselves devoted to gradual democratization.

“I am very impressed by the progress Bahrain is making on all fronts — economically, politically, socially,” Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said the last time she visited Manama, in December.

“The democratic process is continuing … and we are committed to strengthening this,” Bahrain’s foreign minister, a cousin of the king, told a U.S.-sponsored conference only a month ago. Asked if he foresaw any problems, the ebullient foreign minister replied, “Maybe a bump in the road, but we’re moving forward.”


But Bahrain has problems, and in hindsight they look bigger than speed bumps.

About two-thirds of its half a million citizens are Shiite Muslims, the same sect as the majority in nearby Iran. But the royal family is Sunni Muslim, like the majority in Saudi Arabia.

Bahrain’s Sunni minority has institutionalized discrimination against the Shiite majority to keep control of the country’s government, military and economy. Parliamentary districts are gerrymandered, so only 18 of 40 seats in the elected Assembly are held by Shiites. The military’s officer corps is entirely Sunni.

The discriminatory practices have led to unrest and agitation among Shiite Bahrainis. One reason Saudi Arabia built a causeway to the island was to allow Saudi troops to intervene if problems in Bahrain got out of hand.


The government has shown its willingness to crack down hard in the current wave of demonstrations, despite repeated urging from the Obama administration to avoid violence. On Thursday, troops fired shotguns at demonstrators in Manama’s Pearl Square, killing four. And more shooting was reported on Friday after funerals for the dead turned into new protests.

Ominously, the country’s main Shiite political party, which has always argued for nonviolence and negotiations, reacted to the shootings by withdrawing its members from parliament.

The United States has less leverage in Bahrain than it did in Egypt. Egypt’s military needed U.S. economic and military aid; Bahrain’s royal family likes its alliance with the United States but doesn’t need it nearly as much as it needs Saudi Arabia.

Bahrain’s King Hamed ibn Isa Khalifa, 61, is a weak ruler. He began his reign in 1999 with promises of reform, but in practice his regime has oscillated between periods of modest liberalization and harsh repression.


Much of the real power is wielded by the king’s uncle, Khalifa ibn Salman Khalifa, who has been prime minister for almost 40 years. Khalifa, 75, is a pro-Saudi conservative who has worked to slow democratization — and, along the way, has made himself one of the richest men in the kingdom, leading to widespread charges of corruption. The demonstrators’ initial demand last week wasn’t to end the monarchy; it was to replace the prime minister. That’s also a move three U.S. administrations have privately favored.

The U.S. favorite in the royal family is the king’s eldest son, Crown Prince Salman ibn Hamed Khalifa, 41. He’s a U.S.-educated modernizer, and he told a conference in Turkey last week that the events in Egypt should spur Bahrain to continue its reforms. But Salman hasn’t been able to get past his great-uncle, the prime minister.

If the uprising gets out of hand, there’s little danger that the monarchy will be overthrown. The Saudis, who don’t want to see that kind of precedent, would almost surely intervene to prop up the royal family, no matter what the Obama administration said.

So the aim of U.S. policy in the short run is to head off that crisis before it happens — to persuade all sides to de-escalate and start negotiating. The long-term aim of U.S. policy is to strengthen the crown prince and the modernizers, but also to keep the Navy headquarters, which means not rocking the boat too hard.


Standing for democracy and monarchy at the same time has always meant walking a fine line between change and stability, but it is especially difficult now. An increasingly educated public, with access to news from the rest of the world, can tell the difference between ersatz democracy and the real thing.

In Bahrain and elsewhere, history is calling our bluff.