MANAMA, Bahrain – As tanks moved into Bahrain's capital, top envoys from across the Gulf gathered inside a seaside palace and emerged with a message: They were united behind the nation's monarch and his ruling system.
But the show of solidarity last week among the Gulf Arab fraternity — including heavyweight Saudi Arabia — was more than just outreach in a time of crisis. It also sent an implicit warning to Bahrain's leaders not to allow more spillover from pro-democracy unrest within the club of sheiks and kings who hold sway from Kuwait to Oman.
"In other words, they are thinking, 'We need to keep a lid on this,'" said Shadi Hamid, director of research at The Brookings Doha Center in Qatar.
So even as Bahrain's rulers offer talks with the opposition to ease a week-old uprising in their island kingdom, their negotiating options appear limited by worries from Gulf allies, experts say.
Powerful neighbor Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states are likely to apply serious pressure on Bahrain's royal house to avoid deep concessions that could embolden other mutinies against the near-absolute control of the region's leaders.
Already, there are uncommon rumblings of dissent in the Arab world's richest corner, which also is home to Washington's front-line partners against Iran.
A handful of Saudi activists formed a political party earlier this month to try and open reform talks, including efforts to expand rights for women. The founding members of the group were later detained.
In Kuwait — with the most robust political opposition in the region — reform groups plan a rally March 8 and descendants of stateless desert tribesman have started to press for citizenship and generous state social benefits.
The worry may be even reflected indirectly by the popular pan-Arab broadcaster Al-Jazeera, which was founded by Qatar's ruling emir. Coverage of Egypt's revolt was virtually nonstop while the handling of Bahrain's chaos right next door has been far more routine.
"The political situation might be different in the Gulf countries, like Bahrain, to that of Egypt and Tunisia," said Christopher Davidson, a professor of Gulf affairs at England's University of Durham. "But it's the conviction that people power can change the presidents, monarch and rulers that unites them."
It's also brought urgent visits from Washington and London to consult with their critical Gulf allies.
U.S. Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, began a Gulf trip Sunday in Saudi Arabia, which has pledged to use "all its capabilities" to support leaders in Bahrain — home to the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet.
Prime Minister David Cameron headed to the region Monday.
For decades, the Gulf has been a place of easy predictability for Western policy makers. Its ruling dynasties — some, like Bahrain, go back centuries — showed little tolerance for dissident and used oil riches and patronage in a quasi-feudal social contract. Supporters would be rewarded in exchange for loyalty and a tactic understanding to stay out of politics.
Challenges to the status quo typically came from within, such as a 1970 palace coup in Oman during which the son pushed out his father.
Suddenly, the orders are coming from the streets.
A manifesto issued by a Bahrain youth group Monday demanded a clean sweep: abolish the monarchy, replace the military with an "army of citizens" and bring authorities to trial for attacks on protesters. Other opposition groups have proposed less drastic steps. They suggest that the monarch can remain but must give up his political privileges and powers to the elected parliament.
The lack of a clear opposition voice suggests it could be difficult to move quickly into possible negotiations with Bahrain's Crown Prince Sheik Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa, who has been selected by the king to lead the proposed dialogue. And, in any event, demonstrators have been hesitant to take the prince up on his offer of talks.
Many protesters in Manama's Pearl Square — the heart of Bahrain's uprising — feel they have already shaken up the Gulf's rigid hierarchies.
"The Gulf leaders are taking what they see in Bahrain as a warning sign. That's why they are giving so much support to our government. Especially Saudi should be especially worried because the oppression they have, particularly against their women, is becoming unbearable," said Zainab Dahneem, a 35-year-old teacher.
Yasser Taher, a businessmen, believes the Gulf citizens are no longer content to accept the trappings of a middle-class life — or better — in exchange for giving the rulers a free ride.
"The Gulf people may be wealthy, but these are not movements to ask for food or money. We want our civil and political rights," said Taher, 46. "People are ready ... they are waiting to see what will happen in Bahrain and that will embolden them more to do something."
There's little doubt that similar assessments are being made by Gulf rulers, who have watched the chain reaction of Arab anger reach their doorsteps. A collapse of the Bahrain dynasty — or even significant power giveaways — would be seen as a "taking important bricks out of the entire ruling facade in the Gulf," said Mustafa Alani, a regional analyst at the Gulf Research Center in Dubai.
With Bahrain, there is also an added element of concern. The Sunni leaders fear that Bahrain's Shiite majority — about 70 percent of the population and the mainstay of the protests — could offer a foothold for Shiite powerhouse Iran. Even though there are no obvious ties with Tehran now, Sunnis recall Shiite groups inspired by Iran's Islamic Revolution in the early 1980s and note the some Iranian hard-liners still refer to Bahrain as the Islamic Republic's "14th province."
That could account for the unusually strong pledges of support by authorities in Saudi, the main rival to Iran on the Arab side of the Gulf. It was unclear, however, whether they were speaking only of political backing or if they were ready to send military forces over the causeway into Bahrain to help shore up the monarchy.
Kuwait's emir, Sheik Sabah Al Ahmed Al Sabah, also stressed that "the security of Bahrain is the security of the region."
After a meeting of Gulf foreign ministers in Bahrain on Thursday — just after tanks were temporarily deployed in parts of the capital — the United Arab Emirates' foreign minister, Sheik Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, said "any threat to Bahrain security will impact the whole" region, according to the state news agency WAM.
Simon Henderson, a Mideast analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, described the Gulf rulers as digging in to protect systems whose time may be coming to an end.
"The king or emir is the CEO of a country and member of the ruling family are the shareholders, not the people," he said.
"That's the way it used to be," he added. "That was before people across the Middle East marched on the streets, demanding their rights now matter how brutal or how ancient the regime in power."
Murphy reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Associated Press writer Hadeel Al-Shalchi in Manama, Bahrain, contributed to this report.