U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates flew out of Bahrain Saturday afternoon after meeting with the king and crown prince about political reforms, and just ahead of another demonstration in Manama.
There was a large protest on Friday in Manama and on Saturday thousands of protesters marched near the royal family's palaces. As the secretary headed home he said he believes the kingdom's leaders are serious about responding to the protests with real political reforms.
After riding past the site of Friday's large protest and street battle with police, Secretary Gates spent nearly two hours with Bahrains' top leaders, including ten minutes alone with the king. On the flight home, the secretary said the region's leaders need to respond to the protests with more than what he called "baby steps."
"I believe, based on the things that I've heard from the crown prince and the king, that they are prepared to do more than just, as I put it, baby steps," he said.
Secretary Gates urged the Bahraini leaders to respond to their people's political and economic grievances with "real reform." He said they have already made some changes and would like to move faster with what he called "more far-reaching steps."
But he said one problem is that some opposition elements have refused to join a dialogue offered by the crown prince, a frustration the prince also expressed to reporters at the start of meeting. Gates said U.S. diplomats have met with opposition leaders to try to convince them to participate in talks.
Part of the Pearl Roundabout tent city, March 12, 2011
One reason for the reluctance could be found Saturday morning at the headquarters of the protesters, Pearl Roundabout in Manama. While Gates was at the royal palaces meeting the king and the crown prince, a tent city of protesters and vendors was awakening after a day in which police fired tear gas, and according to some reports rubber bullets, to break up a large protest after Friday prayers.
The police were reportedly joined by pro-government gangs armed with pipes and swords. Some protesters threw stones, while others tried to make them stop and chanted for a peaceful approach by both sides.
One protester, a teacher who identified himself only as Nabil, says he is not interested in any dialogue with the royal family. "Our grandfathers tried them in [the] 20s and 50s and 60s and 70s, we had a problem with them. And in 80s, 90s and now as well. They say, 'OK, let's sit at a table and see what you want.' And we believe them every time. And every time they lie. So no trust for this family now," said Nabil.
Badria, right, with two friends on Pearl Roundabout, March 12, 2011
Also on the roundabout were several women in traditional black abayas, including a nurse named Badria.
When asked why she is supporting the protests, she said, "Because we are suffering here in Bahrain. All our rights are not given to us. Even our grains they are now wishing us to sign that we are with the king. Otherwise, they will not give us our grain."
Protest signs at Pearl Roundabout, March 12, 2011
The mostly Shi'ite Muslim protesters' top complaint Saturday was about foreign workers, Sunni Muslims brought in by the country's Sunni leaders to do manual labor and given citizenship, a situation the country's Shi'ite majority says is changing the political balance and depriving them of jobs. Badria says she is worried about the future for her four small children.
"I am educating them. Who will give them work? Nobody! If the situation is still like this, my children will not get jobs. They will not get any place to stay," she said.
The protests in Bahrain pose a strategic problem for the United States. The U.S. Navy's fifth fleet is based there, providing support to U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. And there are concerns that if Bahrain becomes unstable it could affect another key ally, neighboring Saudi Arabia, where another Sunni royal family rules.
In addition, Secretary Gates said he told the Bahraini leaders if they allow the already month-old unrest to continue, it could create an opportunity for Iran.
"I expressed the view that we had no evidence that suggested that Iran started any of these popular revolutions or demonstrations across the region, but there is clear evidence that as the process is protracted, particularly in Bahrain, that the Iranians are looking for ways to exploit it and create problems. And so, I told him that in this instance time is not our friend," he said.
Gates said he told the Bahraini leaders the widespread demand for reform in the Middle East will not allow for a return to the status quo before the protests began, and the United States wants its friends to lead the process, rather than have change imposed on them by potentially destabilizing popular uprisings.