Middle East protests spread to vital US ally

Will Rahn Senior Editor
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Bahrain, an important U.S. ally off the coast of Saudi Arabia, has been rocked by protests in recent days as the Middle East’s “Rolling Revolution” spreads to the Persian Gulf.

“There’s a deep sense of frustration among large segments of Bahraini society,” Middle East expert Toby Jones told Reuters. “If there was one place in the Gulf that I was going to predict that there would be something similar (to Egypt), it would be Bahrain.”

Bahrain, a small island country with a Shiite majority, has been ruled by the Sunni Al Khalifa dynasty since the early 19th century. The family shares some of its oil revenue with the population, which has in the past has ensured political stability despite widespread reports of discrimination against Shiites.

King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa recently announced he would give an extra 1,000 dinars (about $2,650) to every family on the island. “I think it is no coincidence that the government has chosen this time to announce new grants to all Bahraini families,” said Jane Kinnimont, an analyst at the Economic Intelligence Unit.

The protests look set to escalate this weekend. According to organizers “at least 50,000” people will take to the streets on Saturday in the largest anti-government rallies yet.

However, it is not clear if the protesters in Bahrain will be able to topple the government. Shadi Hamid, an analyst at the Brookings Centre in Doha, said that Sunnis were unlikely to take part in the protests.

“Not everyone in Bahrain agrees that democracy is a good thing because that will put the Sunni minority’s power at risk,” he told Reuters. Sunnis account for about 30 percent of Bahrain’s population.

The government has also promised to increase spending on social items such as food subsidies, a move some diplomats believe will blunt the protests.

Bahrain’s capital Manama is home to the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet.