DUBAI: Deadly protests in Bahrain in which some demonstrators have called for the overthrow of the pro-Western monarchy show that the oil-rich Gulf is not immune to the Arab wind of change, analysts say.
Inspired by the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt which brought down two Western-backed strongmen, protesters in the Shia-majority island state which is ruled by a Sunni royal family have taken to the streets in recent days, raising fears of a repetition of the deadly unrest of the 1990s.
Bahrain, before the rise of Dubai and the Qatari capital Dohar, was the main centre for offshore investment. And for the United States, its strategic importance lies in the fact that the US Fifth Fleet has its base there.
"The region is facing the repercussions of what happened in Tunisia and Egypt," said Saudi political scientist and columnist Khaled Dakheel.
He said that although the Gulf States could use their huge oil and other revenues to tackle social and economic problems like unemployment, they were "not immune" to protests and need to address demands for political change.
"These countries suffer sluggishness in political reforms," he said.
Among the six Gulf monarchies, only Kuwait has an elected parliament that enjoys legislative powers. Bahrain’s elected parliament has the authority to examine and pass legislation proposed by the king or cabinet, but an appointed upper house can overrule its decisions.
Oman has an elected advisory body and the United Arab Emirates has in the past few years allowed the indirect election of half of the members of its advisory body. Saudi Arabia and Qatar still see their consultative councils appointed by the ruler.
UAE political scientist Ibtisam al-Ketbi agreed that the Gulf states were "not immune" to calls for political change.
"Any democratic system that does not suffer a political or social problem, would not fear any repercussions," she said.
But she added that because of severe restrictions on political activity, grievances were often not well articulated in the Gulf.
"Political forces in some of these countries are not well developed. They do not have the ability to push" for change, she said.
Bahrain had allowed political groups to form associations, although not parties. The main Shia opposition grouping has been the largest bloc in parliament since it ended its boycott in 2006.
Regional kingpin Saudi Arabia has had problems in the past with its own Shia community, whose members continue to complain of political and economic marginalization.
Dakheel warned that some Saudi Shias, who are mostly concentrated in the oil-rich Eastern Province across a narrow bay from Bahrain, could be tempted to stage protests following in the footsteps of their Bahraini co-religionists.
"There are Shia leading figures who would not want to go in that direction… but it is normal in such a situation. Similar things happened after the Iranian revolution," of 1979, he said, referring to a short-lived uprising in the Eastern Province that year.
"There are Shias in Saudi Arabia who believe that they deserve certain rights… If a state expects people to act as citizens and not as members of a confession, the state should first treat them as such," Dakheel said.
Ketbi said that discrimination against Shias in Saudi Arabia was a cause for concern as a possible source of unrest in the key oil producer.
"Because there is regional and sectarian discrimination, there is concern in Saudi Arabia," she said.
Ketbi warned that Shia Iran might try to exploit the sectarian frictions.
"Iran will definitely exploit this situation. It will definitely try to play the sectarian card," she said.
Dakheel expressed confidence that Iran would fail in any attempt to cause trouble.
"It is rejected in the Arab region. We have Shias who stress their national affiliation," he said.
As testimony to that, the leader of Bahrain’s main Shia opposition bloc, Sheikh Ali Salman, was careful on Wednesday to allay fears that its goal was an Islamic republic like Iran’s.
"People do not demand a religious state. They demand a civic and democratic state like in other places of the world," the opposition leader said, adding that the demand was for a "real constitutional monarchy".