Why America is Faced With a Tough Decision on Bahrain's Independence Day

Today, the people of Bahrain have once again taken to the streets to demand democratic reform and increased government accountability. Marking more than 40 years of Bahraini independence from Great Britain, activists and opposition leaders have called for protests on August 14 to reinvigorate the movement that began more than 2 years ago, when mass demonstrations were met with a brutal government crackdown.

When I moved to Bahrain in the summer of 2010, there appeared to be no indication of the massive political upheavals to come. My father, a career US Navy officer, had been assigned to the US Naval Fifth Fleet, headquartered in Bahrain. As headquarters of the Fifth Fleet and US Naval Forces Central Command, as well as a vital staging ground during the Gulf and Iraq Wars and a bulwark against Somali pirates and Iran, the small base known as Naval Support Activity Bahrain (NSA Bahrain) has become an invaluable resource for America’s interests in the region. My family was happy in Bahrain: it seemed to be one of the most progressive nations in the Gulf, with a population historically friendly to Westerners.

However, on February 14, 2011, the relationship between Bahrain and the US fundamentally changed. Inspired by revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia, peaceful activists took to Bahrain's streets to demand basic freedoms and a more representative government. They gathered to voice their dissent at the Pearl Roundabout, a major hub in Bahrain's capital, Manama. The regime responded with a brutal crackdown that left dozens dead and hundreds wounded. A month later, a multinational military force led by Saudi Arabia entered Bahrain at the request of the Bahraini monarchy to squash the uprising. During this period, the government of Bahrain perpetrated blatant human rights abuses, such as imprisoning medical staff who treated injured protesters, destroying centuries-old Shia mosques, and torturing jailed activists, leading to several deaths. Since that time, the protest movement has not abated, and human rights abuses still occur almost daily, according to local rights groups.

Like most US military dependents living in Bahrain at the time, I was confined to my house during the crackdown's most violent stages. I remember the sense of foreboding I felt watching Saudi tanks roll into Bahrain on Al Jazeera television, and the helplessness I felt as I sat on my roof watching smoke roil up from the Pearl Roundabout. More than that, I remember the uncertainty we faced over what would happen to the Fifth Fleet and to my family. The US military had ordered dependents to leave Bahrain before, and many of my friends had already fled the country due to an advisory from the Pentagon. My family ultimately decided to stay throughout the revolution, not leaving until my father’s tour of duty ended in mid-2012. However, service members and their families stationed in Bahrain continue to experience the fallout from ongoing protests and widespread discontent in the country.

The Bahrain government’s heavy-handed response to peaceful protesters sheds light on tensions between human rights promotion and security interests in American foreign policy. The presence of the US Fifth Fleet in Bahrain grants the small island nation considerable protection from a potential Iranian threat and anchors the economy of the Juffair district. Perhaps of equal importance is the Department of Defense-run Bahrain School that I attended, which boasts the Crown Prince as an alumni and acts as a bridge between the base and the local community. As such, one might reasonably conclude that the United States wields a fair amount of influence over Bahrain and the outcome of the pro-democracy movement. Yet, US officials often cite the security relationship with Bahrain as paramount and have shied away from pressing for a substantive reform agenda. Given the reluctance of the United States to utilize its influence with the ruling family, the Bahrain government has remained impervious to criticism of its human rights abuses, failing to holistically implement meaningful reforms that reflect the will of the people. Considering the worsening political instability in the country, the United States must formulate alternative approaches to its relations with Bahrain before the situation escalates to a point that may threaten the safety and security of US service members and their families, and renders the presence of the Fifth Fleet in Bahrain untenable.

The United States has countless ways of exerting pressure upon Bahrain’s leaders at its disposal, be it through back-door diplomacy, targeted visa bans and asset freezes on human rights abusers, or public demands. However, a combined unwillingness on the part of the US government to use the full range of tools at its disposal, coupled with hardening positions among the anti-reform faction in Bahrain, have made it difficult to realize any substantial positive change in the Bahrain government’s behavior in the two-and-a-half years since the uprising began. A different approach is clearly needed. Given the considerable benefits Bahrain receives as a result of the presence of the US Fifth Fleet, the base serves as a logical leverage point for the United States in its attempts to direct the government of Bahrain towards meaningful reform. 

Specifically, the Department of Defense should, in coordination with the State Department, reiterate its concerns with Bahraini officials regarding the pressing need for substantive political reforms in response to the legitimate aspirations of all Bahrainis for a freer, more democratic society. Simultaneously, the Defense Department should create a contingency plan for the potential relocation of the Fifth Fleet, in the event that the security situation in Bahrain continues to deteriorate. Although the optimal outcome would be to keep the Fifth Fleet in Bahrain, the US military must nevertheless be prepared to move its personnel offshore or overseas to ensure their safety, as well as continuity of operations, particularly the deterrent capability vis-à-vis Iran. In short, the fact that no contingency plan currently exists for such a situation is unacceptable.

There is no shortage of ideas as to what such a “Plan B” might look like. According to Commander Richard McDaniel, a US Navy officer and recent Brookings fellow who released a policy paper on US strategic access in the Middle East, the port of Jebel Ali in Dubai is a potential candidate for the fleet’s new headquarters. The United States maintains a close security relationship with the UAE, and the port is frequently used by Navy ships in the region to replenish stores and conduct basic maintenance.

Another possibility discussed by Commander McDaniel and endorsed by retired Admiral Dennis C. Blair, the former Director of National Intelligence, would be to transfer the Fifth Fleet’s headquarters to a flagship, as was the arrangement prior to the establishment of the onshore base in Bahrain in 1993. This option would eliminate dependence on any host country’s security situation while allowing the Navy to maintain a presence in the Persian Gulf. However, relocating the fleet’s operations to sea would necessitate a reduction in personnel, as a result of the resource-intensive nature of the Fifth Fleet’s operations and the limited capacity of the flagship, and may not necessarily represent viable long-term solution.

Given the fiscal implications and logistical challenges of basing relocation, the optimal scenario is to avoid a situation in which the Fifth Fleet must be moved. In that vein, the United States must send an unequivocal signal to the Bahrain government that stability in the kingdom is vital to US interests, and must be achieved through meaningful political and human rights reforms. Moreover, the US should make it clear that its military presence cannot remain indefinitely if the current state of affairs is maintained. The Bahraini government must end its crackdown on peaceful protesters and democratic reformers, and it must hold a truly inclusive dialogue with all members of society --- including members of the ruling family. And the United States must help facilitate these reforms, using the base as a key point of influence.

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Alex Cox

Alex is an undergraduate student at Harvard. As a Navy brat, he grew up in Virginia but also spent four years living overseas in Japan and Bahrain. His main areas of interest are international affairs, human rights, Middle Eastern politics and culture, urban planning and infrastructure, and US and international history.

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