US Foreign Policy
Commentary

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

in Program

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.

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