The political tsunami in West Asia and North Africa has caught political pundits by surprise. The initial reaction was one of ‘Oh my God’. But nations that have a declared trust in God and nations that haven’t now realize that unlike other tsunami this was not just an act of God.
Born to rule kings, emirs, sultans and not forgetting the so-called ‘elected’ presidents - aided and abetted by upholders of democratic values and Human Rights – now find themselves in a cul de sac.
Before we get carried away on the road to democracy we may consider if the current turmoil in the land of oil is part of a greater design and what may be the shape of things to come? The referendum in Sudan for many was an indicator – an opening gambit on the political chess-board of the region.
With Sudan divided into two parts – and the oil-rich south Sudan wrested away from Khartoum – heralded the success of forces that had failed in carving out Biafra in Nigeria. The new republic of South Sudan presently confined to an incubator in the maternity ward of political intrigues will not be born until July.
With Gaddafi digging his heels and Khalifah family drawing a line in Bahraini sands rulers of the region - yet to be tested by the masses – are spending sleepless nights. That Libya with a far less population than Egypt and Sudan and considerably larger in area, oil and mineral resources appears a more lucrative choice for Western adventurism.
The imposition of no-fly zone and incessant bombing of Libya proves the point. Bordering Saudi Arabia, Yemen with an impoverished economy – like Egypt – is the work horse of peninsular Arabia.
Until 9/11 Yemenis managed and ran workshops, bakeries, corner grocery stores and provided the much needed labour for construction industry in neighbouring countries. Saudi Arabia, the rich next-door neighbour was a safe haven for the Yemenis. They needed little or no documentation and could set themselves up in any business of their choice. But things have changed now and Al-Akh Al-Raees (Brother President) Ali Abdullah Saleh and his countrymen have fallen out of favour.
Long serving President Saleh bends over backwards to please Riyadh but the spectre of Osama bin Laden casts shadows that unnerve King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia. The ‘loves me, loves me not’ Saudi-Yemeni relationship has turned acutely bitter. Yemen - with or without President Saleh - is a source of threat for the Ale-Saud ruled Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
The current unrest in Bahrain and Yemen is like a horror double-bill bonanza for the sedentary Saudis. The masses in Saudi Arabia generally appear to be satisfied with the status quo. The unexpected largesse of recent rewards and perks to Saudi citizens by King Abdullah has seen by some as ‘protection money’.
This artificial situation in the Kingdom reminds you of a nursery rhyme, Sing a Song of Sixpence, taught at primary schools: The King was in his counting house counting out his money, The Queen was in the parlour eating bread & honey.
With the unrest in Bahrain and Libya on fire the oil prices are destined to go through the roof and the 30,000-strong Saudi royal family will have a lot of counting to do in near future. However, what boggles the Arab minds is not what is happening in North Africa and the peninsular Arabia but on a small island kingdom, Bahrain. It also bothers foreign forces present in the region.
Something tells you that the plan is not working out according to the script. Bahrain’s demographic makeup is pretty lopsided. Of the total population of 750,000 – according to 2001 census - some 70 per cent are Shia, about 9 per cent are Christians, some 11 per cent are Sunni and others constitute the rest.
A Sunni minority – often dubbed ‘foreigners’ - has been ruling the island for nearly 200 years. The Shia population of Bahrain – it is alleged – draws inspiration from Tehran. This is neither pleasing to Riyadh nor Washington.
The rich man’s club GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council), the OIC and the Arab League are too weak to influence or to infuse sense among those asking for reforms and the rulers who prefer to sweep all dissent under the proverbial carpet.
Bahrain is small but produces 48,000 barrels of oil per day – which is about enough to look after its own affairs. Neither Bahrain nor Yemen can be compared to Libya but political changes so close to Riyadh are likely to have a long-lasting impact on a Kingdom that has so far resisted change in its social and political structure. After guns have gone silent and smoke has died down cartographers are likely to have a field day redrawing the geo-political map of the region.
Syed Neaz Ahmad is a London-based academic, writer and critic.