- Associated Press - Tuesday, February 8, 2011

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — Just a few dozen Saudi women took part in a protest to demand the release of prisoners they claim are unfairly linked to militants. Yet the small act of defiance in Riyadh is part of a wider question for autocratic rulers in the Persian Gulf who wonder if the ripples from Egypt could head their way.

It’s too early to predict what — if any — street demonstrations could rise across a region symbolized by its skyscraper-studded wealth, super-powerful sheiks and monarchs, and some of Washington’s most important military footholds.

The failure to draw crowds at planned rallies in Syria last week also underscores that the protest fire from Tunisia and Egypt apparently can be stamped out by hard-line state security, which is also a hallmark of Gulf states.

But there’s no shortage of hints that reform-seeking groups in the Gulf are trying to seize the moment.

The rare protest rally on Saturday in the Saudi capital came a week after Saudi activists launched a Facebook page demanding more jobs and political accountability in the world’s biggest oil exporter.

Calls on social-media sites also have gone out for protests next week in Bahrain and next month in Kuwait — the two Gulf nations with the most active and organized political opposition.

Even the United Arab Emirates, with almost no public voice in decision-making, is calling for new faces on a 40-member government advisory panel in a bid to show a response to the upheavals that began in December in Tunisia and now grip Egypt.

“There will be pressures coming to the Gulf for reforms on things like corruption, abuses of power and a greater voice for civil society,” said Mustafa Alani, a regional analyst at the Gulf Research Center in Dubai. “What happened in Tunis may make these ruling families somewhat more flexible to bend with the wind.”

However, Mr. Alani thinks any calls for change will not include demands to topple the tribal-centric regimes.

“This is a red line because, simply, there are no alternatives,” he said.

Still, even the smallest cracks in the Gulf status quo would be watched closely in the West, which has deep economic and military ties across the region. Washington also depends on its Arab allies in the Gulf as a front-line buffer against Iranian influence and as hosts for key Pentagon outposts, including major air bases and the Navy’s 5th Fleet headquarters in Bahrain.

It was a safe choice because the risk of political uncertainty is so low. Some of the Gulf dynasties stretch back to the region’s hardscrabble past before oil was king. Their attitudes about sharing power remain generally rooted in desert tradition: Keep the real decision-making in just a few hands.

Some nations, led by Kuwait, have brought in parliaments that can challenge ruling authorities. Others have advisory groups with limited clout. They include the UAE and Qatar, whose state-founded Al-Jazeera network has been accused by some Arab leaders of fomenting protests with its blanket coverage of Tunisia and Egypt.

“This is the Achilles’ heel of the Gulf,” said Christopher Davidson, a Gulf analyst at the University of Durham in Britain. “There might be belief in change in other parts of the Arab world, but they don’t want it to get too close.”

In some ways, it’s already at their doorstep.

A Kuwaiti group calling itself Fifth Fence is using Twitter messages for calls to rise up against “undemocratic practices” by the government, which has been under increasing pressure from opposition lawmakers over allegations of fiscal abuse and attempts to roll back political freedoms.

On Sunday, Kuwait’s rulers accepted the resignation of the scandal-battered interior minister in an apparent attempt to undercut the protest plans. It seems to have bought them some time.

The protest group had called for a rally outside parliament for Tuesday but postponed it until March 8 “in response” to the interior minister’s stepping down. The statement, however, repeated its goal of forcing out the entire government.

In Bahrain, meanwhile, a Facebook page and other websites carry appeals for an anti-government demonstration on Feb. 14, the anniversary of the country’s 2002 constitution that brought in an elected legislature and reforms such as allowing women to vote and run for office.

The tiny island kingdom has been the most volatile in the Gulf. Majority Shiites have long claimed discrimination and other abuses by Sunni rulers. A wave of arrests of Shiite activists last year touched off weeks of protests and clashes — and a highly sensitive trial of 25 Shiites accused of plotting against the state. The next trial session initially was set for Thursday but has been postponed for Feb. 24.

“The Gulf states are not that far removed from what has happened in Tunisia and Egypt,” said Ali Fakhro, a political analyst and commentator in Bahrain. “Why? Because all Arab youth have similar demands: jobs, freedom, a feeling they are not oppressed by their leaders. The Tunisian revolution, as well as Egypt, is spreading new principles and a new definition for Arab youth.”

The impression of a political hunger in the Gulf can seem at odds with the widely held perception of a passive citizenry content with generous state handouts and cushy public-sector jobs. Kuwait, for example, is giving every citizen the equivalent of about $3,600 and free food coupons this month to mark 50 years of independence and other anniversaries.

But Gulf governments are trying to shrink their bloated payrolls. They also face the lopsided demographics that fueled their stunning growth: a glut of foreign companies and workers that squeeze out opportunities for young locals.

The UAE and others are pressing to enforce quotas for businesses to hire nationals in an effort to avoid a backlash from university graduates with limited job options.

Last month, the New York-based group Human Rights Watch accused Gulf states of stepping up pressure on political activists, including blocking blogs and Web forums.

The attention on human rights is “very, very new for the region,” said Ahmed Mansour, a human rights activist and a blogger in the UAE. “But they are starting to express themselves.”