Bahrain may be the 163rd most populous country on Earth, but for the past week it has taken center stage, along with Libya, in the unfolding drama shaking the Arab world. While the island kingdom carries little of the weight and influence of a political and cultural power like Egypt, the events in Bahrain have the potential to reshape the geopolitics of the Gulf, with knock-on effects for global oil markets and the U.S.-Saudi relationship.
Following the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, disgruntled Bahrainis took to the streets to protest corruption, institutionalized racism and the lack of political rights and economic opportunities. The protests have been driven by the Shiite majority, which constitutes approximately two-thirds of the country's native population according to most estimates. The Bahraini royal family is Sunni, and, as in Saddam Hussein's Iraq, almost all the country's political and business elites are Sunni and have close ties to the government.
Of the six Gulf Cooperation Council states -- Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates -- Bahrain was always the most vulnerable to instability, due to its discontented majority and its small and dwindling base of oil reserves, which other authoritarian petrostates use to shore up patronage networks. To grow its economy, Bahrain has moved to position itself as a financial center for the Gulf region: a Dubai without the excesses. This has prompted inflows of the international business class as well as of low-status South Asian laborers, with the CIA estimating that nearly 32 percent of the country's 738,000 residents are foreigners. However, the repositioning has done nothing to address the economic injustices the Shiite majority face.