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Bahrain crisis could unseat long-serving premier

Bahrain crisis could unseat long-serving premier

Inspired by the fall of seemingly impregnable leaders in Egypt and Tunisia, popular protests in Bahrain may finally dislodge the world's longest-serving prime minister.

February 21, 2011 12:30 by

Popular protests in Bahrain may finally dislodge the world’s longest-serving prime minister, as demanded by a mainly Shi’ite movement pressing for a fairer deal in the Gulf Arab island ruled by a Sunni Muslim dynasty.

Inspired by the fall of seemingly impregnable leaders in Egypt and Tunisia, Bahraini demonstrators want to see the back of their prime minister, Sheikh Khalifa bin Salman al-Khalifa, entrenched in office since independence from Britain in 1971.

He symbolises the kind of stability which has sustained Arab states underpinned by unsavoury security services and which has long suited the West, focused on securing global oil supplies.

Bahrain’s oil industry, the first in the Gulf region, dates to 1932. Now only a small producer, the island is a strategic U.S. military asset, hosting an American naval base since 1958.

The Fifth Fleet’s base near Manama helps Washington project military power across the Middle East and Central Asia. It has played a critical role in U.S.-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Sheikh Khalifa, 75, who many Bahrainis believe has acquired vast wealth and tracts of land during his tenure, looks increasingly unlikely to survive the crisis rocking his country.

“He has stayed long enough,” said Abdel-Khaleq Abdallah, a political science professor in the United Arab Emirates.

“The king will probably find this as good a moment as any to say, thanks uncle, you have done your duty, time for you to make a move. We might see a new prime minister in the making soon.”

U.S. President Barack Obama, rapidly reassessing policy as popular fury against Arab despots sweeps a long-dormant region, has condemned violence in Bahrain and told its rulers that stability depends on respect for the rights of its people.

“Obama has recognised this is not the time for autocrats and wants to side with democrats in the Arab world,” Abdallah said. Nowhere had protesters chanted “Death to America”, he noted.

Nor has Bahrain’s roughly 70 percent Shi’ite majority, sore about what it calls decades of discrimination under Sunni rule, sought regime change, only a genuinely constitutional monarchy.

But protesters do want the resignations of the prime minister, along with the ministers of defence, interior and royal court, who they blame for crackdowns on Shi’ite dissent.

The government, which rules 1.3 million people, half of them foreigners, denies that Shi’ites get unequal access to health care, housing and state jobs, especially in the security forces.

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