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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.

“It does appear that the U.S. is picking its battles in the region and standing up for the protesters is not a priority,” said Jane Kinninmont, an expert on Bahrain at the London think tank, Chatham House. “I don’t see any meaningful opposition from the United States to the Saudi position on Bahrain.”

Kinninmont noted that Bahrain has never seen much anti-American sentiment.

“But you could definitely see that sentiment rising in the future,” she warned. “And that definitely is a concern in a country where the United States has a major naval base.”

The days leading up to the March 16 attack on the Pearl Roundabout were filled with drama, sometimes in plain sight and sometimes not.

(Read: Bahrain protest movement stifled by government suppression)

On the morning of Sunday March 13, the capital of Manama awoke to barricades on the main highway blocking the city’s financial district. This move by a radical faction of protesters outraged the government, particularly royal family hard-liners, or “Falcons,” as they are known here.

Led by Prime Minister Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa, who has been in his job for 40 years, the hard-liners saw this as another notch in the increasingly provocative posture of militant protesters who had days earlier organized marches on royal palaces.

On top of this, the Falcons and their allies in Riyadh had been alarmed to hear Gates telling reporters a day earlier, on Saturday, that he had urged a faster pace toward serious reforms in his meetings that day with Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa and his son, Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa.

“His remarks went down badly in Riyadh,” said one Saudi source.

Around mid-day Sunday, King Hamad called Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister Prince Saud Al Faisal and requested Saudi troops. King Abdullah quickly agreed.

“The government of Bahrain called for the Saudis because they felt the need for regional backing against U.S. pressure” to negotiate with the opposition, said a Bahraini professional who declined to be named.

“My analysis,” he added, “is that the Saudis were very panicked when Hosni Mubarak fell down ... They felt the flames of the Egyptian revolution are spreading.” As a result, “they are very strong behind limiting the size of changes” in Bahrain’s political system.

Meanwhile, the Crown Prince, who Bahrainis regard as the royal family leading dove, or Pigeon, as they are known here, issued a list of seven topics to be discussed if the Shia opposition parties would agree to start talking without preconditions. He also said that any agreement reached could be put to a referendum.

Also on Sunday, Chibli Mallat, a constitutional lawyer and visiting professor of Islamic studies at Harvard Law School went to Logan airport for his flight to Bahrain. As he checked in, his phone rang and Mallat was told to cancel his trip because of deteriorating conditions.

In an interview, Mallat said he had been invited to Bahrain by the opposition, with the encouragement of the U.S. State Department, in order to discuss various issues related to the opposition’s proposal for a constitutional monarchy in Bahrain.

“Somehow,” said Mallat, “on the 13th things started going wrong.”