Anchors Away: The future of the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet in Bahrain

July 21, 2011

By Andrew Noble - The home base of the US Navy's Fifth Fleet has become a subject of discussion for American policymakers since large-scale protests broke out in Bahrain this past February. Located in the Persian Gulf near key Saudi Arabian oil fields, Bahrain has been the regional base of operation for the US Navy for more than six decades.  As part of US Naval Forces Central Command (NAVCENT for short which is also headquartered in Bahrain), the Fifth Fleet is responsible for protecting America's interests in some 5 million square miles encompassing the Persian Gulf, the Arabian and Red Seas and is a powerful symbol of American presence and power in the Middle East.

Earlier this year, Bahrain's politics erupted into conflicts between the Kingdom's Sunni rulers (and their security forces) and a largely Shia opposition.  The state responded to the protests, almost certainly informed by the revolts in Tunisia and Egypt, with uncharacteristic force, killing several protesters in Manama's Pearl Round-about and detaining hundreds of activists. Observers and human rights groups accused the Bahraini regime of the use of torture in prisons against activists, in addition to widespread - and persistent - discrimination against the majority Shia population in housing and in the workplace. Frustration within the Shia population has led to protests in the past, the most notable lasting from 1994-2000.  Some Sunnis have also demanded more rights from the government, including the well known pro-democracy activist and politician Ibrahim Sharif who has publicly called for democratic reforms.

US officials have reportedly quietly pressured the King and others in the royal family, the Khalifas, to pursue reforms as a matter of priority and to live up to the ones offered before but never fully implemented.  In the wake of the Arab uprisings of early 2011, the Bahraini government hardened its position, encouraged by Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Cooperative Council states, which have provided assistance to the Bahraini government to help maintain internal security and protect infrastructure. 

Publicly, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and others have lightly rebuked Bahrain, but emphasized America's continued partnership with its Gulf partner.  Unlike the US public stance in the Mediterranean Arab world, in the Gulf region the Administration has had to balance more carefully its immediate security concerns and strategic interests with its declared support for democratic transitions in the wider region.

The NAVCENT/Fifth Fleet status is an important consideration in the formulation of US policy.  It plays a large role in Central Command operations from Afghanistan to the Horn of Africa by protecting oil shipping lanes, conducting anti-piracy patrols, and supporting combat operations. It is also the critical player in monitoring and responding to Iranian activities in the Persian Gulf. The ability of the Fleet, with command over approximately 20,000 personnel and over thirty vessels, to successfully undertake these duties makes it an important deterrence and response asset for the United States.  As former Commander of the NAVCENT/Fifth Fleet, Vice Admiral Kevin Cosgriff, has observed, "In a globally connected world that relies on its shared oceans for all manner of resources, keeping the waters of this region safe and stable contributes directly to the security and prosperity of regional nations and the global community."

As of mid-July, the situation in Bahrain has stabilized. The pro-reform Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa visited the White House in June, and promised greater efforts to launch a meaningful dialogue with the Shia opposition. In the first week of July, more than 300 delegates from the Shia opposition groups and the government met to launch a new reform process. The largest opposition group, Al Wefaq, withdrew from the talks on July 17, stating that they were only given five of the 300 seats available and their demands were not seriously discussed. Additionally, many key opposition activists remained imprisoned. Despite this rocky start, the Obama Administration is working to help bridge the gaps between the regime and the opposition, thus helping promote American values while securing America's long-term strategic interests. Assistant US Secretary of State Michael Posner remarked on the national dialogue, "It is for the Bahraini people to forge their own future.  Yet it is important for us that Bahrain, our strategic and political partner, succeeds in this endeavor, and that we provide the Bahraini people and government whatever help we can to assist them in building a peaceful and prosperous future." 

Prospects for the NAVCENT/Fifth Fleet headquarters to remain in Bahrain for the foreseeable future are not threatened. Before moving the Fifth Fleet, US officials must consider the message the base closure would send to Iran and other Gulf states. But it is important to use this period of uncertainty to rethink the stakes for all parties in the established security relationship, and its relevance to larger political developments in Bahrain and the region. It is possible, even with the recent lessening of tensions, to imagine darker scenarios.  First, if civil strife resumes, resulting in the weakening or even the demise of the monarchy and the emergence of a hostile regime in Manama, the headquarters could be expelled.  Second, chronic human rights violations by the Bahraini government might persuade US leaders that the presence of US forces in the country was no longer tenable, from the perspective of broader principles and US domestic political considerations.  Third, continued violence or uncertainty in the country could engender terrorist threats and jeopardize the safety of US naval personnel.  Both Washington and Manama, as well as the neighbors of Bahrain, have an interest in preventing any of these scenarios from materializing.

Written by

  • Andrew Noble
    Former intern for the Southwest Asia/Gulf Program