Middle East

Will Bahrain's Royal Family Outlast Protests?

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The family that runs the tiny kingdom of Bahrain is Sunni in a majority Shiite Muslim nation. Robert Powell, a Middle East analyst with the London-based Economist Intelligence Unit, talks to Steve Inskeep about Bahrain's royal family.


We've been wondering how a Sunni family ended up in charge of a mostly Shia country. Bahrain's royals are one of several royal families in the Persian Gulf. Robert Powell of the Economist Intelligence Unit has been tracking their rule.

Mr. ROBERT POWELL (Economist Intelligence Unit): The royal family, the Al Khalifa, with the king being King Hamad, he's been in charge for a little over a decade now, generally viewed as vaguely reformist, at least compared to his father. But the scale and pace of reform has disappointed the opposition, which is one of the reasons why they've been taking to the streets.

INSKEEP: And how long has this royal family been in charge of Bahrain?

Mr. POWELL: Oh, since independence, which was 1971.

INSKEEP: Independence from?

Mr. POWELL: The U.K.

INSKEEP: And does that mean that King Hamad's father was the one who was handed power from the British and basically he was someone who was acceptable to the British at that time?

Mr. POWELL: Well, it was actually an alliance that went back way further than that. The British were simply scuttling off everywhere at the time. In any case, they weren't overly concerned about who was in charge. They were more concerned about cutting their costs and cutting their military bases and the like.

INSKEEP: Is this a pretty normal story for a Gulf royal family, that you have someone who basically took charge when there was a colonial power and as the colonial power receded, they became full-fledged rulers?

Mr. POWELL: More typically it's a question of tribal dominance. So if you look at somewhere like Saudi Arabia, the Al Saud, for instance, have a historical relationship it goes back centuries with some of the leading clerics. And piece by piece, area by area they're able to sew the country together, often by force of arms. It's a fact that these places coalesced over a period of time.

INSKEEP: Now, the two governments that have fallen in the Arab world so far, we should note, are not - were not monarchies. They were strong men who had taken power in recent decades, more recent decades. Are the monarchies, in any way, more stable than their counterparts in places like Egypt or Tunisia?

Mr. POWELL: If you look at Egypt and Tunisia as an example, one of the problems - of course, there's many. But one of the problems that the rulers came into is they were trying to organize their own succession. Take the case of Egypt. They were looking for some kind of a hereditary succession from Hosni Mubarak to his son. However, of course, a hereditary model is, of course, central to any monarchy, any ruling family. So it's actually a very, very different situation. It's much more straightforward, because it will, by definition, remain within the family. So, in that sense, that gives them a little more stability. But many of the underlying grievances go way beyond succession.

INSKEEP: Robert Powell is a Middle East analyst with the Economist Intelligence Unit.

Thanks very much.

Mr. POWELL: Thank you very much.

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