Saudis Monitor Bahrain As Protesters Demand Change

Anti-government protests are entering their fourth week in the island nation of Bahrain with no end in sight. The monarchy says it's ready for talks with its critics, but some in the opposition insist the government step down. Bahrain's neighbor, oil-giant Saudi Arabia, is anxiously watching the unrest.

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And I'm Ari Shapiro. Good morning.

While Libya holds the world's attention, many other places in the Muslim world are still in turmoil. Anti-government protests in Bahrain are entering their fourth week, with no end in sight. The monarchy says it's ready for talks with the opposition, but many demonstrators insist that nothing can happen until the government quits.

As NPR's Frank Langfitt reports, Bahrain's neighbor, Saudi Arabia, is anxiously watching the unrest.

(Soundbite of honking horns)

Unidentified Group: (Chanting in foreign language)

FRANK LANGFITT: Every day marks a different demonstration in Bahrain's capital, Manama. On Saturday, people formed a human chain stretching for miles. On Sunday, they surrounded the prime minister's office and demanded he resign.

Where in the world a PM for 40 years, asked one sign, referring to prime minister, who's also the king's uncle.

Manar al-Sahlawi recently graduated from college and works in the hospitality business. She wants some of Bahrain's ruling royal family, known as Al-Khalifa, to just leave.

Ms. MANAR AL-SAHLAWI (Hospitality Worker): I think they should get out of the country, but not all of them. Because, to be honest, not all of them are happy with what's going on. But...

LANGFITT: Which ones should leave?

Ms. AL-SAHLAWI: The prime minister, the king and the crown prince.

LANGFITT: The three men who essentially lead the country. Like other protesters, al-Sahlawi wants Bahrain to have a fully-elected parliament, not like the one now, where the upper house is appointed and loyal to the king. And she says Shiite Muslims like herself suffer discrimination for jobs under a Sunni-dominated government.

Fellow Gulf countries, including Saudi Arabia, are discussing a so-called Marshall Plan to create jobs to stabilize Bahrain and Oman, which also faces protests.

Over the weekend, the government here made an offer of its own. But al-Sahlawi says the demonstrators can't be bought.

Ms. AL-SAHLAWI: Yesterday, they announced on TV they will give 20,000 jobs and the Ministry of Interior to the people. After what? After, like, killing seven people? After injuring, like almost 400 people?

LANGFITT: Al-Sahlawi is referring to the government's armed assault last month on the protesters' camp in the city's Pearl Traffic Circle. Instead of frightening demonstrators, the attack seems to have hardened their resolve.

Mohammed Jassim al-Aradi is a 25-year-old food company technician. He says the protesters are still motivated, but split on what they want.

Mr. MOHAMMED JASSIM AL-ARADI (Food Company Technician): Myself, I hate al-Khalifa. I don't want anytime from now they rule us.

LANGFITT: But al-Aradi knows getting rid of a family that has run this island for more than two centuries may not be realistic. Grudgingly, he says he could live with a constitutional monarchy.

Mr. AL-ARADI: If there is a king, if, I'm saying - I put a line under if - if there is a king, a king without any authority.

LANGFITT: The government here does have some support. A mostly Sunni organization held two large rallies in the last couple of weeks, calling for national unity.

Sheik Abdullatif al-Mahmood, a university teacher and religious figure, chaired the events.

Sheik ABDULLATIF AL-MAHMOOD (University Teacher): (Through Translator) We believe this government has made a lot of mistakes, but we don't want to dismantle the system.

LANGFITT: Al-Mahmood says he wants slow, modest reform. And he doesn't think the prime minister should step down in a crisis.

Dr. AL-MAHMOOD: (Through Translator) The opposition isn't just asking for the prime minister to step down. They're demanding that the entire government and the parliament step down, and they want a new constitution. And all of that would create chaos.

LANGFITT: What happens in Bahrain could have ripple effects beyond this tiny island. Saudi Arabia, the world's largest oil exporter, is next door. Protests erupted in the Saudi capital of Riyadh on Friday a first. The government there reiterated a ban on demonstrations, and it doesn't want Bahrainis providing encouragement.

Nor, it seems, does the United States. The White House has praised the Bahraini government's call for talks. Bahrain is home to the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet, and unrest in the region could send oil prices through the roof.

Again, Sheik al-Mahmood.

Dr. AL-MAHMOOD: (Through Translator) The great countries, such as the United States, always act in their own interests. They're always with the winner and the one who has the power.

LANGFITT: Just who that is remains to be seen. The regime here shows no sign it's going to leave. Neither do the protesters.

Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Manama, Bahrain.

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