In These New Times

A new paradigm for a post-imperial world

Nervous U.S. navy eyes on Bahrain

Posted by seumasach on February 16, 2011

Mark Thompson


15th February, 2011

While the troubles in Egypt and Tunisia are important in Washington’s geo-strategic calculations, they don’t rank highly in its selfish concern over real estate. All that changes when it comes to the tiny Persian Gulf state of Bahrain, an island tucked between Saudi Arabia and Qatar on the gulf’s western shore with fewer than 1 million residents. The home of the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet – and a recently-launched $580 million U.S. expansion effort slated to double the U.S. Navy’s acreage there – could be in jeopardy if Bahrain’s monarchy falls.

Thousands of Shiites protested in the capital of Manama on Tuesday. They were angry over the death of a man, in a clash between police and mourners, at a funeral for a demonstrator shot at an earlier anti-government rally, Reuters reports. The killing, a day after a “Day of Rage” of protests on Monday, suggested more unrest between Bahrain’s majority Shiite Muslims and the Sunni security forces backed by the ruling Sunni Al Khalifa dynasty. (See TIME’s Exclusive Photos: Turmoil in Egypt)

The (Iran-friendly) Shiite majority, which accounts for almost 70% of the population, wants the (Saudi-friendly) king, Sheik Hamid bin Isa al-Khalifa, to rewrite the constitution to give Shiites more power and opportunity, while also seeking investigations into allegations of torture and corruption (sound familiar?).

The downside to all this unpleasantness is that Bahrain is the U.S.’s most important post in the Persian Gulf. It’s ground zero when it comes to monitoring the oil flow – nearly one gallon of every five used worldwide – down the gulf and through the narrow Strait of Hormuz. It’s also a key base from which to eyeball Iran on the other side of the gulf.

The 5th Fleet and a base used by the U.S. Air Force both call Bahrain home. But the U.S. presence there has always been a sensitive topic. Following World War II, the U.S. had a large presence in Bahrain, but that shrunk in 1977 after Shiite efforts to end the monarchy there failed but succeeded in terminating a docking pact for U.S. warships. But the two sides kissed and made up following the 1991 Persian Gulf War, and the U.S. presence once again blossomed. There are up to 30 Navy vessels in the region at any one time, and they often dock in Bahrain for resupply and R&R. Egypt’s Uprising: Complete Coverage”

And there’s a welcome bonus for sailors in Bahrain. Unlike most other nations in the region, alcohol is available. In fact, it’s so popular that the Navy has a “Tipsy Taxi” program so sailors who have had a bit too much to drink while out on the town can flash a special card at taxi drivers and get a free ride back to base.

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