Britain's former Ambassador to Bahrain, Robin Lamb, yesterday penned this short report for the highly influential MEC Analytical Group, and I hope they will not mind me reprising in part what he had to report:
"I write this on Friday 18 February soon after reports of live firing at the Pearl roundabout in Bahrain, marking a further deterioration in the prospects for a political resolution of the current confrontation - and almost inevitably ensuring the cancellation of the Bahrain F1 Grand Prix. The forcible dispersal of demonstrators at the Pearl Roundabout was puzzling because it was inconsistent with the way I would have expected the Bahrainis to handle the demonstration and, more to the point, with the tone of King Hamad's televised address and the Crown Prince's interview on Al Jazeera, the day before. Today's live firing is also hard to reconcile with the King's royal order to the Crown Prince today to lead a national dialogue with all parties: there is a disconnect between words and actions. There is a rumour in Bahrain that the Saudis sent the King a message boiling down to rattab umourkum (loosely, 'get your house in order'). I have no way of knowing if this is true but it would explain why the government has taken such a misstep and made a difficult situation worse for itself."
Back in 1995, when unrest last gripped Bahrain, the Saudis took a particularly strong interest in events across the border, nervous that the contagion of democracy might seep across into Saudi Arabia itself. At the time the Saudis went as far as to station special forces at key choke points, sending a message to the Shia majority in Bahrain that they had better not over-step the mark in their challenge to Sunni, one family rule.
The situation in Bahrain is far more serious now, as is the potential for a serious Saudi intervention to rescue the ruling Bahraini family and shore up the regime. Clearly the religious demographics at work there are of extreme interest to the House of Saud, as is the maintenance of the traditional rulers along its periphery. While Saudi Arabia seems unlikely to be about to experience the wave of protest that has burned its way across North Africa and the Middle East, despite being possibly the most totalitarian state in the region, the West now has some very serious thinking as to how it does business with the House of Saud in the future.