Will Bahrain be the first Middle Eastern monarchy in recent times to collapse? The last one to bite the dust was Iran’s in 1979, following the demise of kingdoms in Libya (1969), North Yemen (1962), Tunisia (1956), Iraq (1958) and Egypt (1952). Like dominoes they seemed to be falling in that era, giving rise to the idea that monarchies were political dinosaurs. But later on, as the remaining monarchies survived, it appeared that the people were more prepared to confer legitimacy on kings than presidents. So evolved the present conventional wisdom that this form of government seems well-suited for the Arabs—certainly better than the so-called “republics”.
But today, as authoritarian “republics” across the Arab world tremble and sometimes tumble, little Bahrain is the first kingdom to be challenged by the wave of popular democratic protest. It is bad enough when it has to cancel the Formula One racing event. But you know matters are getting really serious when the king’s police open fire on peaceful demonstrators, prompting protesters to escalate their demands and call for the abolition of the monarchy itself. That hasn’t happened before. Does the present king—and especially his entourage—still possess sufficient legitimacy to face the present crisis?
[1979 New York article by this author. Download PDF here]
Not that Bahrain has been immune to political turbulence. In 1979 I wrote an op-ed piece in The New York Times entitled “Bahrain: The Gulf’s Guinea-Pig Society.” The article evoked the paternalistic, complacent coziness of the Emir’s inner circle before pointing out the challenges it faced regionally and internally. It noted the heightened threat of Iran under its new new Islamist regime. It highlighted the “tough Government security measures” used to suppress leftist opposition, and it discussed the “more serious worry” of sectarian unrest between the majority Shi’ite population and the Sunni Khalifa dynasty. I also commented upon the double-edged nature of United States support: the benefits of a security umbrella vs. the anti-American public sentiment owing mainly to US policy on Palestine and Israel. I attach the article below.
Some things, it seems, never change. The emir—now a king—still rules, not reigns. The public still desires constitutional reform and a limited monarchy. The all-powerful mukhabarat initially established by the British continues to intimidate opposition and discourage political participation. Protest is still driven substantially by sectarian discrimination against the majority Shi’ite population. Iran remains a threat. An American security umbrella (the US naval presence was reestablished and expanded) offers regime security while diminishing its legitimacy owing to American support for Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians—only recently and embarrassingly reiterated in its veto of a Security Council resolution condemning settlement expansion.
And above all Bahrain is still the “guinea-pig of the Gulf”: can a monarchy without huge oil rent and with a politicized population endure? And if it can’t, what message does that send to the rulers and the peoples of the neighboring Gulf Cooperation Council monarchies? Could—would—Saudi Arabia tolerate the collapse of the al-Khalifa dynasty? The unprecedented earthquake of popular protest throughout the Arab world is sucking the legitimacy out of all of its authoritarian systems—“republics” and monarchies alike, whether or not they are actually experiencing street demonstrations.