At least everyone had heard of Egypt, but most of us would be hard pressed to find Bahrain, site of the latest Middle Eastern unrest, on a map. (It’s a small island in the upper part of the Persian Gulf, off the coast of Saudi Arabia.) Over the last three days, however, thousands of demonstrators there have been demanding jobs, political reforms and the departure of the country’s long-serving prime minister.

As Crikey publishes, peaceful protests have turned violent, with police firing tear gas at protesters, and one protester tweeting that 70 people are injured, with 16 tanks and 60 other military vehicles facing demonstrators. Latest reports say three protesters have been killed.

It’s looking like a smaller version of Egypt, further evidence of the “domino effect” that has already seen protests in Yemen, Algeria, Iran, Jordan and Libya — with official responses that have ranged from hurried concessions to brutal repression.

So it’s worth stepping back and taking a look over the prospective dominoes to see if there are some common themes to indicate which are the likeliest candidates for change, and conversely whether some countries are better placed than others to hold out against the tide.

The following table, showing the 18 Arab countries of the Middle East, plus Iran, provides something of a guide:

Country Political rights (Freedom
House ranking)
Civil liberties (Freedom House ranking) Population (millions) GDP per capita  (PPP, IMF) OPEC member? Monarchy? US ally?
Algeria 6 5 34.90 $7103 Yes No Sort of
Bahrain 6 5 0.79 $26,807 No Yes Yes
Egypt 6 5 77.5 $6367 No No Yes
Iran 6 6 76.92 $11,024 Yes No No
Iraq 5 6 30.75 $3599 Yes No Yes
Jordan 6 5 6.32 $5658 No Yes Yes
Kuwait 4 5 2.99 $38,293 Yes Yes Yes
Lebanon 5 3 4.22 $15,331 No No Sort of
Libya 7 7 6.42 $14,878 Yes No No
Morocco 5
4 31.65 $4773 No Yes Yes
Oman 6 5 2.85 $26,197 No Yes Sort of
Qatar 6 5 1.41 $88,232 Yes Yes Sort of
Saudi Arabia 7 6 25.72 $23,742 Yes Yes Yes
Sudan 7 7
40.12 $2466 No No No
Syria 7 6 21.91 $5108 N No No
Tunisia 7 5 10.33 $9488 No No Yes
UAE 6 5 4.60 $36,973 Yes Yes Yes
Yemen 6 5 23.58 $2595 No No Sort of

De Tocqueville famously said of the ancien régime in France that “The most dangerous moment for a bad government is when it begins to reform.”

There’s certainly some support for that in the table. Look at the first two columns, showing Freedom House’s 2010 rankings for political rights and civil liberties (one is best, seven is worst).

None of them are good, but both the relatively OK (Lebanon, Kuwait, Morocco) and the very bad (Libya, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Syria) have so far been among the least troubled by unrest. All of the large-scale protest so far has been in countries that score 5s and 6s: Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Iran, Bahrain, Algeria. Places where conditions are bad enough to provoke discontent, but not so bad as to destroy hope entirely.

There’s also a degree of support for the theory that wealth, and particularly oil wealth, enables regimes to stifle dissent: Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen are all outside the circle of oil-rich states. But the troubles in Iran and now Bahrain (not itself an OPEC member, but heavily dependent on the oil industry) suggest that effect is limited.

Bahrain also counts against the theory that monarchies carry more popular legitimacy than straight-out dictatorships, although so far the other Gulf states have been relatively quiet.

It’s also important to look at not just the propensity for dissent, but the willingness of governments to crush it if necessary. There is a reasonably good predictor there in a country’s status as an ally of the United States: those that have nothing to lose from American disapproval (Libya, Iran, Syria) are clearly poised to use force with the required ruthlessness.

The US allies, however, have so far at least been much more restrained — and as Egypt demonstrated, once the army refuses to fire on rebels it leaves the government with very few options. Not a good sign for the regime in Bahrain, closely tied to the West militarily and home of the US fifth fleet.

Perhaps the most interesting of the remaining dominoes is Saudi Arabia: oil rich but much larger and less wealthy per head than the gulf states; heavily repressive but also a strong US ally.

Wealth and monarchy seem not to have insulated Bahrain, just as Islamic fundamentalism hasn’t stopped the protests in Iran, but the Saudi regime will be hoping that the combination of all three can do the trick for it. If not, no middle eastern autocrats are safe.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey