DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Saudi Arabia doesn't have a seat at Bahrain's crisis talks, but it carries a critical voice in everything from the tone of debate to the eventual offers on the table.Additional reading from Bloomberg:
After four months of Shiite-led protests and harsh crackdowns, Saudi Arabia has become the protector, patron and political gatekeeper for Bahrain's Sunni monarchy in the Gulf leadership's front-line fight against the Arab Spring.
How Bahrain's rulers approach the talks — whose first official session is scheduled for Tuesday — largely depends on how far Saudi Arabia is willing to allow concessions on its tiny Gulf neighbor. For the powerful Saudi royal family and its Gulf partners, Bahrain represents a line that cannot be crossed.
Any setbacks by Bahrain's 200-year-old ruling Al Khalifa dynasty is considered a threat to all monarchs and sheiks in the Gulf — and a possible opening for Shiite power Iran to make headway among the pro-Western Gulf states anchored by Saudi Arabia.
"Bahrain is crucial to Saudi national interest and Riyadh will provide it with all they have to show they are committed to preserving the rule of the Khalifas," said Ayham Kamel, a Middle East analyst at the Eurasia Group in Washington.
Bahrain's Shiites account for about 70 percent of the kingdom's population, but claim they are the target of systematic discrimination including being effectively blocked from top military and political posts. Their protests in February — inspired by wider Arab uprisings — have been by far the biggest challenge to any Gulf ruler in decades.
Saudi King Abdullah deployed about 1,000 troops to lead a Gulf military force to reinforce Bahrain's monarchy, which launched widespread arrests and martial law-style rule to smother the protests for greater rights. At least 32 people have been killed in the unrest in the strategic nation, which is home of the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet.
The Saudi king also sent millions of dollars to pull the tiny neighbor's royals from the brink of bankruptcy and even married off one of his sons to a daughter of the Bahraini monarch.
"It's a powerful act, the royal wedding," said Rima Sabban, a Dubai-based sociologist. "It has nothing to do with love or passion. A marriage like that is strictly political."
Iran has relentlessly assailed Bahrain's rulers for crackdowns against the country's Shiite majority and called the Saudi-led Gulf force an "occupation" army.
There is no strong evidence of any Iranian links to Shiite political groups in Bahrain, however. Opposition leaders repeatedly denied Iran had any role in the uprising and demanded that the Saudi-led force leaves the kingdom before any talks begin.
"The presence of foreign troops is part of Bahrain's problem, not the solution," said Ali Salman, the leader of Bahrain's largest Shiite opposition party, Al Wefaq.
Al Wefaq reluctantly joined the government-designed reconciliation talks while hundreds of protesters are on trial for anti-state crimes and in jail, including eight prominent activists, serving life sentences for their role in protests.
Ahead of U.S.-supported dialogue, that opened with a ceremonial session on Saturday, the government has made some token concessions, including sanctioning an international investigation that will include probes into the conduct of security forces during the revolt and halting trials of opposition supporters in a military-linked tribunal that has sentenced two protesters to death.
But the government has not relented on opposition demands to free all detainees and clear others convicted of protest-linked charges, all harshly criticized by international rights groups and Bahrain's Western allies, including the United States.
"It's more to defuse criticism of the West than to make concessions to the opposition parties, like Al Wefaq, they already feel they have defeated," said Marina Ottoway, director of the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
There are Saudi fingerprints all over Bahrain's so-called National Dialogue, Ottoway said.
"Saudi Arabia wants dialogue since confrontation is not the Saudi way of dealing with things," she said, adding that Riyadh is fully behind the reconciliation talks as long as they don't turn into "negotiations between the monarchy and the people."
For now, Shiite leaders appear willing to give the rulers one last chance, if only to deprive them of blaming the talks' failure on the opposition's decision to boycott dialogue.
"Our demands are clear," Salman said. "For any talks to be successful, people who ask for democracy, should be released from prison and people who ask to be free should get a chance to elect their government."
Bahraini state television, promoting a “national dialogue” after unrest, shows two girls playing and then squabbling, smiles replaced by scowls. Then the smiles return, accompanied by a caption: “Like any family, we have our differences, but we love each other.”
Many of the 300 attending are pro-government loyalists, while the biggest Shiite party, al-Wefaq, has five seats.