MUSCAT, Oman, March 1 (UPI) -- The growing unrest in the Persian Gulf state of Oman, an oasis of stability for decades, and violent pro-democracy protests in Bahrain have heightened concerns the upheaval sweeping the Middle East may hit Saudi Arabia and Kuwait as well.
If that happens, the mass unrest that has toppled the U.S.-backed presidents of Egypt and Tunisia and now threatens Libya's regime, could strike at Washington's vital gulf allies at a time when Iran is expanding its power across the region and change the geopolitical complexion of the strategic region.
Oman, whose leader Sultan Qaboos bin Said al-Said has ruled for four decades unchallenged since an insurgency in Dhofar province in the 1970s, holds a strategic position as it shares with Iran control of the oil tanker routes through the Strait of Hormuz.
That's the only gateway to the Persian Gulf and vulnerable to Iranian closure. In the past, the sultanate on the Arabian Peninsula's southeastern tip, has mediated between Iran and the West.
Oman has been swept by popular protests, triggering a tough response from security forces. Several people were reported killed when police fired rubber bullets at rioters in the oil center of Sohar, northwest of the capital Muscat.
The Omani protesters aren't demanding the downfall of Qaboos, who has modernized his country since he ousted his tradition-bound father in a bloodless palace coup in 1970, only more open government and better social conditions.
Qaboos, like some other Middle Eastern leaders faced with the region-wide upheaval, has moved quickly to address the protesters' grievances.
On Saturday he replaced six Cabinet ministers and hiked the minimum wage by 40 percent. The following day he declared 50,000 new job openings in state institutions and is expected to meet protest leaders soon.
But even though there is no discernible dynastic threat in Oman, there is in Bahrain, an island state where street mobs are howling for an end to the 200-year-old rule of the Khalifa family.
Indeed, the turmoil in Bahrain, a key regional financial hub and headquarters of the U.S. 5th Fleet, is widely seen as more profound and far-reaching than the bloodbath under way in oil-rich Libya.
That's because in tiny Bahrain, 70 percent of the 525,000 population are Shiite Muslims who have long been suppressed by the Sunni monarchy.
There are strong suspicions that Shiite Iran, which has claims over Bahrain, engineered the uprising there in which security forces have cracked down heavily and killed several protesters.
If King Hamad bin Isa al Khalifa empowers the Shiites, that will have "very large-scale implications for the region, particularly Saudi Arabia and Kuwait," observed Kamran Bokhari of the global security consultancy Stratfor.
Both Saudi Arabia and Kuwait are Sunni monarchies, key oil producers and U.S. allies with important Shiite minorities.
And both face protest rallies planned for this month that will be a test of their resolve.
"In Kuwait, the royal family and the legislature have been engaged in a tug of war for many years and if the opposition forces within the Bahraini parliament achieve some sort of concessions from the government, that will embolden the Kuwaiti opposition forces to seek the same," Bokhari explained.
Around 30 percent of Kuwait's estimated 1 million citizens are Shiite and the Shiites in Saudi Arabia dominate the oil fields of Eastern Province, powerhouse of the kingdom's economy. Bahrain is linked to Saudi Arabia by a causeway.
The last thing the Saudis need right now is political upheaval. The kingdom faces a potentially touchy royal succession complicated by the advanced age of the country's top leaders.
King Abdallah, Crown Prince Sultan, Interior Minister and Second Deputy Prime Minister Prince Nayef, and Riyadh Gov. Prince Salman are all in their 80s.
Abdallah has just returned to Riyadh after three months in the United States for surgery and Sultan is in failing health. "This couldn't come at a worse time" for the Saudis, Bokhari observed.
The first thing Abdallah did when he returned to Riyadh was to announce a $36 billion social welfare package aimed at stifling protests.
So far, the kingdom has escaped the fury and turmoil that has engulfed North Africa. But rumblings of discontent have emerged since the Tunisian uprising in January that Iran, the kingdom's regional rival, may seek to exploit.