There are many examples of how complicated and downright Byzantine politics can be in the Middle East, said Scott Waalkes, a political science professor at Malone University who studied in Bahrain as a Fulbright scholar in 2004.
Many of the protesters involved in the current uprising in Bahrain are demanding that its royal family return to their native Saudi Arabia. One small problem: The royals haven’t lived in Saudi Arabia in more than 300 years.
It’s just one of example of how complicated and downright Byzantine politics can be in the Middle East, said Scott Waalkes, a political science professor at Malone University who studied in Bahrain as a Fulbright scholar in 2004.
Waalkes, who holds a master’s degree and a doctorate in foreign affairs from the University of Virginia, said that because Bahrain is next to Saudi Arabia’s oil reserves, Americans have a stake in its future.
“It’s a small country, and you might say it doesn’t affect us because its such a volatile, fragile place, but it is going to affect us, even the price of gas at the pump,” he said.
Another problem is that the royals are Sunni Muslims, while the majority of citizens are Shiites. King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa is a descendant of Saudis who took Bahrain by force in the 1760s.
“He’s trying to move the country more toward a constitutional monarchy,” Waalkes said. “He created a parliament in 2002. It has an upper house and a lower house, but it doesn’t have much power.”
Protesters want the government dissolved.
Waalkes said he isn’t surprised at the protests inflaming Bahrain and others nations in the region, which began with the overthrow of Tunisia’s president in January.
“There have been protests for years by the majority of the population,” he said of Bahrain.
Waalkes said he has been in recent contact with a friend in Bahrain.
“He’s a Shiite and is very concerned, very angry about the violence there,” he said.
Last week, police opened fire on protesters, killing some and wounding hundreds.
Waalkes said Bahrainians like Americans, and noted that unlike their Saudi sisters, women in Bahrain can drive, vote and run for office and are not legally required to wear abayas or hijab.
“They enjoy Americans and like American culture,” he said. “We felt very welcome. They’re hospitable toward Americans. They don’t always like the policies of our government.”
Waalkes planned to lead a contingent of Malone students to Egypt in May but has been forced to change plans.
“One of our hopes was to go to Bahrain,” he said. “We’re glad we didn’t schedule it.”
Waalkes said there’s a simple reason Americans aren’t as riveted by the unrest in Bahrain as they are in Egypt.
“Egypt is a large country everyone’s heard of,” he said. “Bahrain is a tiny country you’d have trouble finding on a map. But they’re in a very important neighborhood.”
Page 2 of 2 - He added that international affairs can be extremely complicated to follow.
“It’s a complicated world. We’re talking people that have thousands of years of history. We have a couple of hundred years.”
Waalkes noted that in many places in the world, people have “long memories.”
“The protesters are saying the royal family should go back to Saudi Arabia — but that was in the 1760s,” he said with a laugh. “We (Americans) have short historical memories; we’re very optimistic. We believe people can get along if they try hard enough.
“People overseas remember what happened hundreds of years ago; it’s still part of their imagination.”