Bahrain is a gulf powder keg
Bahrain is comprised of a group of islands on the Western shore of the Persian Gulf. Given its physical location and local political reality, Bahrain has been ruled primarily by successive Persian empires since well before the birth of Christ.
What makes Bahrain different from all of its Persian Gulf neighbors is the fact that it is home to U.S. naval forces’ Central Command and the U.S. Fifth Fleet at Naval Support Activity Bahrain (NSA Bahrain). Initially begun as a modest support activity to the smallish U.S. naval presence in the gulf when the British left Bahrain in 1971, it is currently undergoing a more than $500 million expansion that will double its current 62 acres and seriously upgrade its security and its ability to support Fifth Fleet gulf operations.
The Fifth Fleet normally consists of around 20 ships, with about 1,000 people ashore and 15,000 afloat. It usually contains a carrier battle group, an amphibious ready group, combat aircraft, and other support units and ships.
NSA Bahrain is designed to play a major support role in all naval operational activities in the gulf, particularly in tactical air support of ground operations in Syria, Iran or elsewhere, should America decide to become further involved militarily in the Middle East.
Bahrain became independent of England in 1971. Geographically situated as it is, 120 miles due south of Shia Iran, there is small wonder that sectarian issues exist: The Muslim share, which is about 82 percent of the population, is 70 percent Shia and 30 percent Sunni.
In terms of nationality, they are even more diverse. In an overall population of 1.2 million, Bahrainis are in the minority at 46 percent, with 54 percent non-native, primarily Sunnis. Of those non-natives, “other Arabs” make up 5.4 percent, Africans 1.6 percent, Asians 45.6 percent, Americans 0.4 percent, and Europeans 1 percent. From these facts, it is clear that the labor demands of the nation far exceed the available workers.
The Al Khalifa royal family has ruled Bahrain since the late 18th century. Virtually all important government jobs are held by members of that Sunni royal family, specifically and importantly including all the security and police organs.
Significant civil protests began in Bahrain on Feb. 14, 2011, with Bahrainis calling for greater political freedom and fairer treatment of the majority Shia population by the minority Sunni government. The government reacted swiftly, repressively and brutally to what were essentially peaceful demonstrations. Security forces killed and wounded indiscriminately during these early protest marches, demonstrations and funerals, and arrested thousands of Bahrainis.
Those early protests cooled a bit when an investigative body, the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry, sanctioned by the government, confirmed the Bahraini government’s use of systematic torture and other forms of physical and psychological abuse on detainees, as well as other human rights violations.
Since that time, Bahrain has been in a state of sustained civil resistance and disobedience, most recently over the death of a protester, and more protests are expected for the imminent second anniversary of the 2011 uprising. This has left the country in a state of turmoil for more than two years despite the beginning of talks between Shia and Sunnis designed to find a way out of the various demands being made against the Bahrain government.
Bahrain has all the ingredients that foster insecurity in the Middle East. Most important among those is the fact that Bahrain is ruled by a minority Sunni government under the nose of Shia Iran. The potential for Iran to make mischief is almost limitless in Bahrain, particularly given the presence there of the U.S. Fifth Fleet.
Further, where tribalism does exist, it is almost overridden by the large numbers of foreigners who live and work for the relatively high wages available in Bahrain. Those foreigners represent an additional wild card in the event of greater turmoil in Bahrain.
Most important, Bahrain is the home away from home for the U.S. Fifth Fleet, which does all its bunkering and support work at NSA Bahrain. The Fifth Fleet would carry a critical load in any further hostilities in the region.
Because any such hostilities are likely to be based on sectarian issues, the fact that half the Bahrain population is Shia, politically discontent and religiously aligned with and friendly to Iran could create enormous security problems for the Fifth Fleet.
Haviland Smith is a retired CIA station chief who served in Prague, Berlin, Beirut and Tehran and as chief of the counterterrorism staff. He lives in Williston.