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Friday, 4 March 2011

4 March 2011

I want you to avert your gaze for a moment from Libya – and try to focus on two much smaller countries further east.

Unlike Libya, they are not blessed with vast oil reserves. Unlike Libya, their leaders have names that ring few familiar bells in Western living rooms. But like Libya – and like many other Arab nations – they are now aflame with popular protests.

These two little countries are Bahrain (you’ll need a magnifying glass to find it on a map), and Yemen. And when you’ve found them, you’ll notice that they share a giant neighbour.

That neighbour is Saudi Arabia, which of course just happens to be the world’s biggest producer of oil and is therefore of crucial importance to anyone who owns a car. That’s why what’s happening in Bahrain and Yemen is important – because what matters to the Saudis should matter to us.

So, what’s happening in Bahrain? It’s a tiny island off Saudi Arabia’s eastern coast, linked to the mainland by a 25-kilometre causeway that enables thousands of Saudis to stream across every weekend to enjoy Bahrain’s much freer atmosphere.

For the men there is alcohol, for the women there are shopping malls galore, and for the children there are cinemas. But Bahrain has a problem: its royal family, which holds virtually all the power (about half the members of the Cabinet are royals), are Sunni, whereas most of its people are Shia.

President Bush used to talk of Bahrain as a model Arab democracy: after all, it has a parliament, with an elected lower house, and a government which – at least in theory – is answerable to MPs. Women are allowed to vote and run for office.

But when I was there five years ago, I discovered that behind the gleaming glass and steel Gulf office blocks and the wide boulevards, there are ramshackle, fly-blown Shia villages, with pot-holed roads and rubbish piled on street corners. Young men hang around with nothing to do – because, as throughout the Arab world, youth unemployment is a major problem.

For the past month, thousands of protesters have been gathering in the streets to demand political reform. Some opposition groups are pressing for the resignation of the cabinet and a new
constitution – others want to go much further and get rid of the monarchy all together. The government has offered talks; so far, no progress has been made – and there are more protests planned for later today.

In an ominous development, last night there were, for the first time, sectarian clashes between groups of Sunni and Shia youths.

As for Yemen, where do we start? Yemen is where Osama bin Laden comes from and where al Qaeda was born. It’s where Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the alleged would-be bomber of a flight from Amsterdam to Detroit in December 2009, was apparently recruited and trained.

President Ali Abdullah Saleh has been in power for more than 30 years, and, according to one recent analyst, presides over a government that is so corrupt that it would make the Afghan President, Hamid Karzai, blush.

Opposition protests have swept the country – the most recent development is that opposition groups are proposing a negotiated transition to a new government that would see President Saleh standing down before the end of this year.

Here’s the point: if either Bahrain or Yemen descend into anything like what has happened in Libya – or if a Shia uprising in Bahrain, or a tribal revolt in Yemen, succeed in toppling the current leaderships – the Saudis will be terrified.

Today, Friday, is another key day. If there is serious trouble in either of Saudi Arabia’s neighbours, watch out for a crackdown in Saudi itself.

I’m not saying you should ignore what’s happening in Libya – but you should also be keeping an eye on what’s happening elsewhere. In a special extended edition of the programme next Friday, we’ll be trying to pull together some of the threads and attempting a preliminary assessment of this unprecedented wave of popular protest sweeping through the Arab world.

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