Bahrain and Saudi Arabia are expected to announce a closer political union at a meeting of the six Gulf monarchies today. The move is being seen by Bahrain’s Shia majority as an attempt by the Sunni al-Khalifa royal family to retain their monopoly of political power.
Saudi troops leading a 1,500-strong force from the Arab Gulf states entered Bahrain in March last year as the Bahraini government began a campaign of brutal repression against pro-democracy protesters. The authorities have claimed the protests were orchestrated by Iran although both the United States and the government’s own commission of inquiry have said there is no evidence of this.
The unity proposal between the two kingdoms comes as the Bahraini opposition says arrests, beatings and police violence have increased since the Formula 1 Grand Prix was staged in the island kingdom last month amid pledges of reform from the government.
Samira Rajab, Bahrain’s minister of information affairs, said yesterday: “I expect there will be an announcement of [political union] of two or three countries.” He said the Gulf union had been proposed by King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia but was “backed by Bahrain”. In practice, the change appears to apply only to Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, which will inevitably lose a significant part of its independence to the much larger Saudi state.
Ms Rajab said “sovereignty will remain with each of the countries and they would remain as UN members, but they would unite in decisions regarding foreign relations, security, military and economy”. Another top Gulf official was quoted at the end of last week as saying Gulf leaders would “discuss the idea of a union between Saudi Arabia and Bahrain”.
Even discussion of a union underlines the determination of the hardline but dominant faction in the al-Khalifa family not to to compromise with the Shia majority in the population. The hardliners are led by the prime minister, Khalifa bin Salman al-Khalifa, who is close to the Saudi ruling family, has held his position for 40 years, and is supported by the powerful royal court minister and the army commander.
The opposition, meanwhile, says the crackdown on pro-democracy activists has been stepped up in recent weeks. On Saturday, protesters burned tyres and clashed with police to demand the release of opposition leaders and rights activists, one of whom has been on a three-month hunger strike.
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