The U.S. has been using Bahrain for military buildup in the Persian Gulf and Indian Ocean since the end of WWII, yet since the epoch when that island was a UK protectorate. Bahrain became a protectorate of the United Kingdom in 1830. Separated from the Arab Peninsula with not wide gulf, the Island of Bahrain was strategically a good point for power projection and maritime domination.
After the UK announced that it would no longer provide security in the Persian Gulf in late 1960, Bahrain declared independence on August 15, 1971. A U.S. Embassy in Bahrain’s capital Manama opened soon after that.
In October 1991, immediately after the first Iraqi war for Kuwait, the U.S. made a bilateral Defense Cooperation Agreement (DCA) with Bahrain. The agreement was classified. It granted the U.S. access to the bases in Bahrain. Deployment of strategic weapons there requires preliminary consultations with Bahrain’s government. Under an additional agreement enclosed to DCA, the U.S. military in Bahrain act within U.S. laws.
In March 2002, the U.S. provided Bahrain a status of “key non-NATO member ally.” The status enables Bahrain to acquire certain weapons from the U.S., use Excess Defense Article program and involve in cooperation with U.S. in the field of defense studies – something it would not get access to elsewise.
Bahrain has official relations with NATO too within Istanbul Cooperation Initiative (ICI) of 2004 that was addressed to Gulf Cooperation Council. Like the other ICI members, Bahrain opened a diplomatic mission at NATO headquarters in Brussels.
Since 1948, the U.S. regional naval command – MIDEASTFOR headquarter (The US Middle East Force) and its successor NAVACENT (Naval Forces Central Command) – has been located in Bahrain. The country is the key base of the Fifth Fleet of the United States Navy set up in June 1991 to operate in the Persian Gulf.
By 1991, all U.S. Navy headquarters in Bahrain were on ships in the harbor. The DCA with Bahrain enabled U.S. to move them to Manama to a complex of buildings called Naval Support Activity – (NSA) Bahrain. This Navy Base is home to U.S. Naval Forces Central Command, Destroyed Squadron Fifty, and Combined Maritime Forces – CTF 150,151,152 responsible for maritime security, counter piracy operations and maritime security operations in the Gulf. Since May 2010, the U.S. military have been implementing a planned military project of additional construction for their headquarters in Bahrain. US$580 million were invested in the project to be completed in 2017. This construction will help double the territory of the headquarters base that will occupy more than 60ha. Additionally, infrastructures for families of U.S. military will be created, including schools.
In December 2014, the U.S. Navy base became more important, as the UK announced an agreement with Bahrain to place a permanent navy base in the area of Mina Salman Port in Bahrain.
The navy base in Bahrain is home to the U.S. Fifth Fleet. Deepwater port of Khalifa bin Salman is one of the few ports in the Persian Gulf to accommodate U.S. 12m aircraft carriers and big assault ships. The U.S. Fifth Fleet consists of ships assigned for forward operation for six or seven months. These ships enter Manama bay when necessary. The main body of the Fifth Fleet that is permanently in the Persian Gulf or Indian Ocean is the strike aircraft carrier group and combat-ready amphibian group with marine infantry on board.
Some not-large U.S. warships, for instance, mine-hunting ships, are permanently crowed in at Manama Port in Bahrain. After 2012, U.S. Navy started expanding that fleet to eight mine-hunting ships equipped it with special helicopters. In 2013, the U.S. Navy added five coastal patrol ships to the fleet in Bahrain.
Bahrain is engaged in defense cooperation with its partners in Gulf Cooperation Council. In December 2014, the Gulf Cooperation Council announced it would establish a joint naval force based in Bahrain to cooperate with the U.S. Gulf Cooperation Council and U.S. maritime forces regularly hold naval exercises, near Bahrain as a message to Iran. They focus on mine counter measure exercises to prevent mining of the Strait of Hormuz by Iran in case of an attack on it.
During the military operation against Iraq in 1991, 15.7 thousand U.S. troops were deployed in Bahrain and 250 U.S. combat aircrafts – at Shaikh Isa airbase. Iraq launched nine Scud tactical ballistic missiles against Bahrain, three of which hit the Island. The latest tensions in Iraq made U.S. increase troops in Bahrain from 6.5 thousand to more than 8 thousand. These are mostly Navy men and staff serving the air base. Sheikh Isa Air Base hosts F-16 and F-18 fighting falcons and P-3 surveillance aircrafts. At present, the air base is used to attack “Islamic State” (ISIS) terrorist organization forces in Iraq and Syria. The base was used for similar purposes in Afghanistan (since 2001) and to invade Iraq (since 2003).
The U.S. is concerned that in case the opposition in Bahrain wins, the U.S. will have to leave the Island. Uneasy domestic political situation makes the U.S. seek alternatives to Bahrain base. During the public unrest of 2011, the U.S. Command strongly recommended the military deployed in Bahrain to avoid visiting the places of public protests. It is noteworthy that some leaders of the Shiite opposition in Bahrain publicly advocated for further presence of U.S. troops on the Island. Nevertheless, Pentagon has already assessed movement of the base from Bahrain to another place in case of unforeseen circumstances. That report remained classified. Potential alternatives to Bahrain may be New Doha Port in Qatar, Shuaiba in Kuwait, and Jebel Ali Port in UAE. There is something that can create inconveniences to U.S. troops – all the above ports have tribunals for merchant ships. Besides, infrastructure development on the U.S. Air Base in Bahrain cost more than US$2 billion. Those investments will be lost, if the base is moved from Bahrain. Besides, the U.S. will have to spend as much to develop infrastructures for its base in a new place.
As for arms supply, Bahrain’s entire budget is relatively not big – less than US$ 9 billion and the country can spend only limited amount on arms purchase from U.S. Therefore, U.S. has to render certain military aid to keep Bahrain capable for participating in regional security missions along with other Gulf Cooperation Council countries. The main aid goes to Bahrain Regular Army that is about 10,000 troops. Bahrain’s National Guard comprising about 2,000 troops is the second recipient of the U.S. military aid. Then goes the security service. Sunnites are in command in army and security forces in Bahrain. During uprising of Shiites in Bahrain in 2011, Barack Obama’s Administration had to impose restrictions on supply of the weapons that could be used by Bahrain National Guard and local forces to disperse protesters, for instance, tear gas, small arms, light weapons, ammunition and “other items to control crowds.” All the other types of weapons were supplied without obstacles.
Most of military aid Bahrain receives from U.S. through Foreign Military Financing (FMF), which provides grants for the acquisition of U.S. defense equipment, services, and training. Since the program was launched in 1993, Bahrain has received more than $400 million aid to purchase and serve weapons. During the recent years, some FMF funds have been used to form special forces for Bahrain. The result is obvious. Should need arise, half of Bahrain’s Regular Army can easily integrate into U.S. armed forces, Pentagon says.
Another form of the U.S. aid to Bahrain is “no cost” five-year lease of weapons.
About 85% of Bahrain’s arms and military equipment is made in the U.S. Washington provided the Island with coastal radiolocation system that is used by Bahrain and U.S. Navy at the same time. The U.S. supplied biometric equipment to Bahrain to identify “international terrorists.”
In 1998, Bahrain acquired 10 new F-16C fight falcons for about US$390 million. Afterwards, Bahrain acquired another 12 F-16 falcons increasing their number to 22. In 1999 and 2009, U.S. sold AMRAAM advanced medium-range air-to-air missiles to Bahrain to arm F-16 falcons.
In 2016, Bahrain applied to U.S. for application of 17 or 19 news F-16V fighting falcons to replace its outdated F-5 Phantoms. The deal is estimated approximately at US$ 4 billion. Administration of President Obama set a precondition to it demanding improvements in “human rights” field in Bahrain. However, Trump will hardly set any preconditions when approving the deal to sell new fighting aircrafts to Bahrain.
In August 2000, Bahrain acquired 30 army tactical missile systems (ATacMS) for US$70 million for its ground forces. The sides have agreed that U.S. controls these systems in Bahrain to prevent leakage of missile technologies.
In 2007, U.S. sold several hundreds of Javelin anti-tank weapons to Bahrain for US$42 million, nine UH-60M Blackhawk helicopters for US$ 252 million, and six Bell helicopters for about $US 160 million.
Bahrain became the first state in the Gulf to receive Stinger man-portable air defense systems (about 70 pieces) from U.S.
In September 2011, reportedly, U.S. sold 44 armored vehicles and several hundreds of BGM-71 TOW anti-tank missiles, including 50 Bunker Busters (BGM-71H) to Bahrain Army and National Guard. The deal cost approximately US$53 million.
Eventually, Bahrain’s limited military budget gives it no opportunity to get involved in U.S. efforts to create a coordinated anti-tank defense for the Persian Gulf states.
Arming Bahrain Army, U.S. involves it into its policy of force in the Middle East. In September 2014, Bahrain joined the U.S.-led military coalition against ISIS. Its aircrafts together with allies attacked terrorists’ targets in Syria, but not in Iraq.
In 2009-2014, Bahrain deployed hundreds of police officers in Afghanistan as part of its NATO coalition efforts.
Foreign policy issues of Bahrain are closely connected with U.S. and other countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council. All the countries of the Council have similar ruling establishment unlike Bahrain that has a Shiite majority population. The Shiite community in Bahrain consists of two groups – the largest is the so-called “Baharna” that belong to an Arab ethnic group. “Baharna” are the indigenous population of Bahrain that originated from Arab tribes of pre-Islamic period.
The other Shiite group are the so-called “Ajams.” They arrived in Bahrain during the last 400 years from Persia (Iran). They speak Farsi. These two groups do not mix in everyday life. Shia Islam finally established in Bahrain in the long period of the Persian rule over Bahrain in the epoch of Safavids (17th- 18th centuries). Bahrain’s historical ties with Iran intensified with settlement of Persians on the Island. The current domination of the Sunnite community is connected with the rule of Utiba Arab tribe over the Island from the territory of present-day Qatar in the middle of the 18th century. Bahrain’s dynasty of Al-Khalifa leaders originated from that tribe. Bahrain King (Malik) Hamad Ibn Isa Al Khalifa (66 years) rules Bahrain at present.
During the last decades, since Bahrain’s independence, the Shiites are in a state of permanent conflict. Muslim-Shiites of Bahrain complain of being treated like “second-class citizens.” Shiites are poor and have no access to political power. Reportedly, 60%-70% of Bahrain’s citizens are Shiites. Authorities dispute that fact. King Hamad and Prince Salman are known to support agreements with Bahrain’s Shiites. However, an influential faction in the establishment opposes any concessions to Shiites and wages a very tough policy regarding them. Such policy is connected with the so-called “Khavalids” – a branch of the royal family. They say that any concessions to the Shiite majority encourage them to make more political demands. Perhaps, they are right. Parliamentarism and respect for minority rights does not fit into the local culture. Support by the ruling circles in neighboring Saudi Arabia gives additional strength to “Khavalids.”
Bahrain has left all the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council behind when it comes to progress in western parliamentary democracy. The other side of the “progress” is the public and government instability rate. Discrepancies among Islam confessions may divide the country into religious communities on the example of Lebanon, but with an extremely limited territory.
King of Bahrain has wide powers of an absolute monarch, appoints all ministers and judges, amends constitution etc. Al Khalifa’s family members occupy seven out of total nineteen places in the Cabinet.
Bahrain’s National Assembly was established in compliance with the Constitution of 1973 and then dissolved in August 1975 over Sunnite–Shiite disputes. In February 2002, in Bahrain, a referendum for adoption of “National Action Charter” that complemented amended Constitution text. Under the renewed Constitution, the National Assembly, prototype of parliament, was again introduced in Bahrain. In 2002-2010, elections were held in Bahrain. Tensions between Shia majority and the regime grew with every new voting. We have to qualify members of quasi-parliament in Bahrain by the religious community they belong to.
Political parties in Bahrain are banned; their local analogues – the so-called “political societies” operate instead. Al Wefak is a Shia political society. Its leaders faced arrests and persecutions. After the unrest of 2011, Al Wefak was banned in 2014. Another Shia political society – Al-Haq is a more radical underground organization.
King Hamad’s government generally reflects the views of Sunnites. Nevertheless, there are two major Sunni Islamic political societies in Bahrain. They are outspoken critics of the government for deviation from Islamic standards. Al Minbar society is a local branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, and Al Asalah is a bellicose Salafist political society.
The situation in Bahrain is deteriorating as hundreds of thousands of expats stay on the island and Sunni top leaders recruit young Sunnites from Jordan, Palestine, Syria, Pakistan and Yemen to army and security forces and nationalize them. Shiites takes this as an attempt to press them with mercenaries recruited from abroad.
Uprising of Shiites in Bahrain started on February 14, 2011 immediately after President Hosni Mubarak was overthrown. Protest leaders demanded amending the constitution to establish a constitutional monarchy where elected parliament appoints the prime minister and the cabinet. In October 2011, leaders of Shia political societies published their manifest – Manama Document. Establishment of Constitutional monarchy and fair elections will mean that Sunni leaders will lose power in Bahrain. Consequences of this event can be heavy for both Bahrain and the entire Gulf Cooperation Council. Possible Shiite revolution in Bahrain and violence it may result in, opposition of the Monarchic leadership and the Sunni society to it with the help of the Gulf Cooperation Council monarchies may prompt a big regional conflict with Iran that will make the U.S. interfere. An overthrow of the king would increase Iran’s influence and deprive the U.S. of its military facilities in Bahrain.
After protesters blocked Manama financial quarter in March 2011, Bahrain government requested the Council countries to send security forces to Bahrain for protection of key facilities. Saudi Arabia sent 1,200 troops with armored vehicles, UAE sent 600 policemen, and Kuwait provided ships to protect Bahrain’s see borders. On March 15, 2011, the king announced state of emergency for three months. Demonstrations of Shiites were dispersed. 53 religious facilities of Shiites were destroyed during crisis events of 2011. Dozens were killed and thousands were injured and wounded during the uprising. About 3,000 people were detained or arrested.
Although the Shia opposition did not achieve its official goal – to establish a constitutional monarchy – the uprising made the royal family conduct certain modest reforms. That is why, the situation in Bahrain is still uneasy. After the revolution, policy of Bahrain’s ruling elite has faced a dilemma: either concessions through “dialogue” or selected repressions. On January 16, 2012, King Hamad announced draft amendments to the constitution. The amendments were approved by the National Assembly and ratified by the king. The National Assembly got a prerogative to assess implementation of the government’s four-year plans. This resembles the vote of confidence to the government.
Later in 2016, the government started denaturalizing citizens and exiling Bahrain’s Shiites, Persians by Origin, over their loyalty to Iran.
The situation aggravates, as Shia underground terrorist organizations hunt security officers. There are shots and explosions, bloodshed. It appears that Shia legal opposition realizes that it fails to trigger any drastic changes, and the government fails to stop disorders finally.
Bahrain’s opposition criticizes the United States for palliating the regime’s embezzlements and crimes. For instance, in June 2012, 28 countries published a joint declaration during debates at the UN Council for Human Rights condemning human rights violations by Bahrain government. U.S., UK and eight more EU countries did not support the initiative.
Bahrain higher ranks, in turn, called the criticism by the U.S. President’s Administration as excessively harsh. Obama’s Administration rhetorically blamed the Gulf Cooperation Council for interfering into the events in Bahrain in 2011. It repeatedly called the Bahraini government to avoid using force against protesters and to set the detained opposition leaders free. U.S. urged the sides to start a dialogue to overcome the conflict.
The uprising broke the high-level communication of U.S. with Bahrain. In May 2012, Prince Salman traveled to Washington. In December 2013, the then defense secretary Chuck Hagel attended an international security conference in Bahrain. When drafting a nuclear deal with Iran, Secretary of State John Kerry travelled to Bahrain in April 2015. At the end of 2016, King Hamad held a phone talk with president-elect Donald Trump. Apparently, U.S. criticism against Bahrain government inefficient due to close strategic alliance of the two countries.
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Inside Gulf Cooperation Council, Bahrain’s political stance is the closest to Saudi Arabia. The two countries jointly develop Abu Safah oilfield – the only oilfield for Bahrain. Bahrain and Saudi Arabia are connected with a causeway built in 1986. Besides. Majority of the Kingdom’s Shiites live in eastern provinces – about 10% of total population of Saudi Arabia. The population structure partially resembles that of Bahrain. The latter usually supports all foreign policy initiatives of Saudi Arabia. In May 2012, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain introduced Riyadh Declaration suggesting a closer political and military alliance between the Council countries. The other four countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council opposed the initiative.
In December 2016, Bahrain hosted Gulf Cooperation Council annual summit that reaffirmed the GCC countries’ commitment to strengthening defense integration. Presently, Bahrain is involved in the Saudi Arabia-led coalition to intervene Yemen to disperse uprising of Hussites. Bahrain’s aircrafts attack Hussite targets. A not large number of ground troops of Bahrain are involved in operations in Yemen. Since the beginning of unrest in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia donated at least $500 million to economy of Bahrain.
Inside GCC, Bahrain is politically close to Kuwait too. This is partially because of historical ties of the two royal families originating from the same Arab tribe Anazzah.
Bahrain’s relations with Qatar are not easy either, though their territorial dispute over Hawar Island that broke out in 1991 was settled in 2001 at the International Court. In March 2014, Bahrain joined Saudi Arabia and the UAE and recalled its ambassador from Qatar. Disputes started as Qatar supported Muslim Brotherhood movements in Arab world. In November 2014, ambassadors of Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the UAE returned to Doha.
Bahrain sees Iran as its major threat in the region. Historically, in the 18th century, the ancestor of Bahrain’s current ruler seized the Island from the Persian Empire of Safavids. In Iran, they remember Bahrain as an erstwhile part of the empire. On that basis, in 1930s Iranian Shah Reza Pahlavi with no success tried to strip Bahrain of the right to supply oil. In 1957, Iran’s Majlis discussed a bill to turn Bahrain into Iran’s province.
Before granting Bahrain independence from UK, UN studied those territorial claims of Iran. The poll conducted in 1970 in Bahrain reveled that local residents do not want to unite with Iran. UN Security Council Resolution 278 approved the finding that "the overwhelming majority of the people of Bahrain wish to gain recognition of their identity in a full independent and sovereign State free to decide for itself its relations with other States." Iran’s parliament ratified the resolution. Nevertheless, in December 1981 i.e. at the beginning of the Islamic Revolution in Iran, and later in June 1996, Bahrain publicly accused Iran of the coup attempt with the help of Bahrain Shiites. In 2009, Ali Akbar Nategh-Nouri, advisor of Iran’s supreme leader, publicly called Bahrain as Iran’s 14th province. Territorial claims and the idea of expanding the Islamic revolution are entwined.
After the events of 2011, Bahrain’s authorities keep blaming Iran for arming and supporting the Shia opposition. U.S. Department of State published an international terrorism report confirming that fact. Iran provided weapons, financing and training of Shia underground militants in Bahrain. Tensions in 2011-2012 broke the diplomatic relations of Bahrain and Iran. Bahrain took Saudi Arabia’s side in the dispute with Iran over protesters’ attacks on diplomatic missions of Saudis in Tehran in January 2016. Iranian leaders, in turn, harshly criticized Bahrain for revoking nationality of activists.
Like other countries of the Gulf, Bahrain expressed concern over Iran’s nuclear program and then protested against the Joint Comprehensive Action Plan adopted on July 14, 2015 to ensure that Iran’s nuclear program is exclusively peaceful. Bahrain leaders say Shia militants have become more active in Bahrain following the deal with Iran.
In March 2016, all countries of the Gulf declared Lebanese Hezbollah movement - Iran’s key ally at the approaches to Palestine, as a terrorist organization and prohibited their citizens from travelling to Lebanon. Bahrain closed down an Iranian bank over ties with Lebanon. Yet in 2013, Bahrain declared Hezbollah a terrorist organization and blamed it for assisting the Shia uprising in Bahrain.
In the meantime, Bahrain has normal trade relations with Iran and some of its energy companies supplied petrol to Iran from Bahrain’s oil refineries in the midst of international sanctions against Iran. Noteworthy that the U.S. did not react to such behavior of Bahrain. Perhaps, the U.S. sanctioned that trade not to harm its key ally in the Gulf.
The Shia factor exists also in Bahrain’s current relations with Iraq. After 2005, the two countries relations were constantly deteriorating, as Shiites dominated in the central government. On the other hand, leaders of Iraq’s Shiites supported the uprising of Shiites in Bahrain in 2011. Therefore, Bahrain does not participate in financing of Iraq’s restoration. Neither Bahrain strikes ISIS targets in Iraq.
In 2011, Bahrain and other countries of the Persian Gulf recalled their ambassadors from Syria and voted to suspend Syria’s membership of the Arab League. However, Bahrain’s government did not fund or armed anti-governmental rebels in Syria. Unlike Qatar and UAE, Bahrain did not play any significant role in overthrowing Lebanese leader Muammar Gaddafi. In Israel-Palestine dispute, Bahrain leaders sometimes took stances not coinciding with GCC stance and even called for a direct talk with Israel. However, Bahrain generally supports the efforts by President of Palestinian Autonomy Mahmoud Abbas to achieve international recognition of the Palestine as a state.
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After 2011, Bahrain’s economy suffered from domestic unrest and sliding oil prices since mid-2014. Export of hydrocarbons accounts for about 80% of state revenues. Bahrain’s oil and gas reserves are deemed the lowest among GCC countries – 210 million barrels of oil and 160 billion cubic meters of gas. Bahrain is the only GCC country to import rough oil and sell it after refining. Sliding oil prices made the government cut domestic subsidies on some types of fuels and foodstuffs since 2014.
Bahrain is now trying to diversify its economy at the expense of the banking and financial sectors. The stock exchange market of Bahrain is still the smallest in the region.
Bahrain is the first country in the region to sign a free trade agreement with U.S., but the total bilateral trade of Bahrain and U.S. is not high – about $780 million. U.S. does not buy oil or oil products from Bahrain. It mostly imports finished aluminum to Bahrain. Annual production of primary aluminum in Bahrain is 960,000 tons, with Aluminum of Bahrain (ALBA) company accounting for about 12% of GDP. At present, they plan to expand significantly and invest much in production of aluminum by 2020. Alumina is supplied from Australia. Electricity is generated from natural and associated gas.
Of course, a certain part of budgetary revenues and GDP of Bahrain comes from presence of the U.S. military there and maintenance of U.S. bases and ships deployed there.
EADaily’s Middle East Bureau