Whose Fourteenth Province Will Bahrain Become?

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Bahrain's Foreign Minister Sheikh Khaled bin Ahmed al Khalifa (C) arrives to attend the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Foreign Ministers' meeting in Riyadh on 4 March 2012. (Photo: AFP - Fayez Nureldine)

By: Abbas Al Lawati

Published Monday, March 12, 2012

Until the late 20th century, the geo-political map of the Arabian Peninsula had been changing constantly for centuries as powerful tribes competed to capture territory in order to maximize their domains of influence, protect their trade interests, and gain access to scarce resources.

Faced with the threat of raids and military conquest, smaller tribes attempted to shield themselves from regional hegemons by entering strategic alliances where a balance was reached between autonomy concessions in return for protection. For the tiny sheikdoms, this formula was the lesser of two evils.

While some tribes chose to enter an “alliance of equals” with one another, others thought it safer to seek the protection of one of the regional powers to ward off the other. In exchange for the protege’s subservience and tribute payments, the arrangement also formalized relations between the two parties, preventing invasions from the protecting power as well as regional powers.

Some sheikdoms entered such protection agreements willingly, albeit reluctantly, while others were coerced into “seeking” protection by the protecting power itself.

The arrival of Great Britain to the region however changed all that. As a distant foreign power, it served as an attractive protector that was largely uninterested in displacing the ruling families, allowing the sheikdoms respite from unwanted protection arrangements with regional powers. Indeed, such was the perceived threat from regional powers that some sheikdoms tried, in vain, to convince Great Britain to stay on when it decided to leave the region in 1968.

Fast forward to the present day and not much has changed. The sheikdoms have become nation states and Britain has been replaced by the United States as the region’s international protector. The tiny sheikdoms have so far successfully avoided being swallowed by one regional hegemon or the other.

But that could soon change.

In recent months, rumors have circulated about an imminent declaration of a political union between Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. Concerned that the king may reach a “grand bargain” with the Shia-led opposition whose pro-democracy protest was crushed last year, supporters of the status quo have cheered and pushed for the potentiality as the only guarantee against Persian encroachment on the tiny island state.

For over a century, Bahrain has with relative success managed to fend off expansionist tendencies from regional powers to its north, south, and east. As a tiny island-state, its rulers know well that they cannot survive without the age-old Arabian methods of protection-seeking or regional alliances. Should Bahrain enter such a union with Saudi Arabia tomorrow, it will effectively give up its struggle to remain independent vis-à-vis regional powers. It is difficult to imagine what a union between two absolute monarchies would look like without one of them de facto relinquishing sovereignty.

The paradox that seems to have escaped those in favor of such a move is that in order to maintain its independence from Iran, Bahrain may be forced to give it up entirely. In a knee-jerk reaction to fears of becoming Iran's 14th province, Bahrain may well be on its way to becoming Saudi Arabia's 14th province.

If it is in fact willing to relinquish sovereignty to a third party, Bahrain would be wise to look eastward instead of southward. There does exist a model that ensures relative autonomy, protection, and an abundance of resources for the sheikdoms, that does not do so in a hegemonic fashion. The United Arab Emirates is the only successful Arab federation that, however imperfect, has given its member emirates a sense of security that other independent sheikdoms do not enjoy.

The idea is not novel. Both Bahrain and Qatar had been offered to join the federation prior to its formation, but could not agree on its terms. If Bahrain had joined the UAE, it would today have been part of the second largest Arab economy and could have avoided its “demographic problem,” its scarcity of resources, and encroachment from the Arabian heartland. It is however futile to engage in hypothetical scenarios, as any state would be wary of inheriting the problems Bahrain finds itself in today.

This includes Saudi Arabia. If a confederation between the two does come into being, Bahrain’s historical culture of political activism and dissent will undoubtedly bleed into the mainland, straight into the restive Eastern Province. Moreover, any pseudo-autonomous status given to a future “protectorate” or “province” of Bahrain will lead to calls for emulation throughout the Kingdom’s provinces, something Saudi Arabia would be keen to avoid at such turbulent times.

Saudi citizens living under a strict and gender-segregated social code will point in frustration to the disparity between their rights and freedoms and those of their Bahrain-based compatriots. It would therefore be an abnormal union between the region's most socially liberal state and possibly the world's most socio-religiously conservative one.

Such a move will also undoubtedly heighten long-held concerns in Gulf capitals about attempts by the heartland to continue expanding its influence to become the regional overlord and is likely to lead to further fragmentation of the Gulf Cooperation Council, which is often viewed by as its members as a tool for that agenda.

The question however that Bahrain has to ultimately ask itself is that if it is indeed willing to give up sovereignty, would it rather give it up to a foreign power than to its own people?

Abbas Al Lawati is a Gulf-based journalist. He can be followed on twitter @allawati.

The views expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect Al-Akhbar's editorial policy.

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