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Bahrain becomes flashpoint in relations between US and Saudi Arabia

A last minute deal between Bahrain's monarchy and protesters, brokered by the US, may have been scuttled by Saudi Arabia.

Saudi arabia bahrain us 2011 4 11Enlarge
A demonstrator steps on an ostrich egg with a drawing of Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah on March 17, 2011 in front of the Saudi Arabia Embassy in Ankara as he attends a demonstration in support of mainly-Shiite demonstrators in Bahrain and denouncing the intervention by Saudi troops. (Adem Altan/AFP/Getty Images)

MANAMA, Bahrain — In the final hours before government forces rolled out their brutal crackdown on Bahrain’s pro-reform protesters last month, a senior U.S. diplomat worked feverishly to broker an agreement that could have led to negotiations between the ruling royal family and the opposition.

The last-ditch efforts of Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Jeffrey D. Feltman fell through for several reasons. One of his key interlocutors, Bahrain’s crown prince, became unavailable at a crucial point. In addition, the hour for compromise ran out as government hard-liners set in motion their plans to crush the protest movement.

Saudi troops had been called in. A state of emergency was declared even as Feltman was meeting with the opposition. And police and military were getting their kits ready for the decisive, dawn sweep into Pearl Roundabout, the protesters’ staging grounds.

(Read: Why Bahrain's protests movement failed)

Feltman also was up against another barrier to success: Saudi Arabia.

The kingdom, which regards Bahrain somewhat like the United States regards Puerto Rico, had no desire for Feltman to succeed because in Riyadh’s view, any negotiations would likely involve a dilution of the royal family’s monopoly on power, setting a distasteful example for other Gulf monarchies.

The Saudis basically “weren’t going to take seriously anything Feltman was trying to do, especially since he was pressuring [the Bahraini government] at all costs to sit with the opposition,” said a Gulf diplomat who declined to be identified because he was not authorized to speak to the media.

The Saudi position on Bahrain, he added, is “no weakening of the monarchy.”

The tiny island, which has been a base for the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet for more than half a century, has become and will likely remain an outsized flashpoint in Saudi-U.S. relations.

Riyadh and Washington both regard Bahrain as a key ally in securing the Gulf’s vital sea lanes and in containing potential threats from Iran. Both also have an interest in ensuring that Iran not gain a foothold among Bahrain’s discontented Shia, who make up at least 60 percent of its population but have little say in the Sunni-controlled government.

This sectarian divide in Bahrain is Saudi Arabia’s primary concern. Riyadh believes that any reforms that would give enhanced powers to the Shia majority would be seen as a "win" for Saudi Arabia’s archrival, Iran. They also fear that this would embolden the kingdom’s own Shia minority, which also complains of being treated as second-class citizens.

Having watched with dismay as Iran became an influential player in Iraq after the Shia majority there took control of the government, the Saudis are not about to let that be replicated in Bahrain.

So they were not happy to hear the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama criticize Bahrain’s assault on the protesters in mid-February, which left seven dead, nor its urgings that the royal family considers serious political reforms.

To show their displeasure, the Saudis declined to receive Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates for visits in Riyadh.

Having strained relations with the top consumer of U.S. military hardware is not an agreeable situation. Saudi Arabia has plans to purchase up to $60 billion in arms from the United States over the next decade

As a result, Washington did not publicly criticize Saudi Arabia’s military intervention in Bahrain. And it has offered only lukewarm rebukes to Bahrain about the fierce repression being inflicted on the Shia population since the crackdown began on March 16. So far, there have been about 20 deaths and nearly 400 imprisoned, according to human rights groups.

In a sign that this U.S. reticence is appreciated by Riyadh, Gates was belatedly received by King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz on April 6. And six days later, White House National Security Adviser Tom Donilon met with the king in Riyadh.

But this stance is tarnishing the U.S. image as a promoter of human rights and democracy.