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American Interests in Bahrain

U.S. Military and Strategic Interests Overshadow Human Rights and Opression

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bahrain us navy 5th fleet

Zak, a 375-pound California sea lion trained to find suspicious swimmers, during a training exercise the waters of Bahrain. The sea lions are trained to put tags or 'restraint devices' on divers that can stop them from getting away.

Brien Aho/U.S. Navy/Getty Images
American interests in Bahrain are vast, expensive and strategic. While an American embassy opened in Manama, Bahrain’s capital, in 1971, relations between the two countries date back to 1958, when the U.S. Navy first established a presence in Bahrain. Those relations grew significantly during Operation Desert Shield and Operation Desert Storm--the 1991 American-led counter-attack on Iraq after Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait--and after the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the Bush administration’s invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. Unlike most Arab nations, Bahrain allowed the Pentagon to fly combat missions from its territory during those wars.

The 20-some ships of the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet--a fleet representing tens of billions of dollars--are based there, with responsibility for 7.5 million square miles of seas from the Arabian Gulf to the Red Sea to the Gulf of Oman. Some 2,300 American personnel are stationed on the Fifth Fleet headquarters’ 100-acre base, and thousands of the fleet’s 15,000 sailors land in Bahrain on and off throughout the year.

The Pentagon requested $258 million in fiscal year 2011 to build several additional facilities on its base there, including $45 million for an expansion at Shaykh Isa Air Base.

Bahrain’s strategic value to the United States is the result of geography: Bahrain is a naval complement to Qatar’s peninsular thumb sticking up the midsection of the Persian Gulf, across from Iran, providing quick access to the gulf’s sea lanes and protecting the disgorging oil pipelines of Iraq, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and, further south, the United Arab Emirates and Oman.

Bahrain has almost no oil. But it has large natural gas reserves (5.3 trillion cubic feet). And it is a major exporter of aluminum and other manufactured goods to the United States. In 2009, Bahrain exported almost half a billion dollars worth of goods to the United States. The United States exported $668 million to Bahrain.

Bahrain’s own military is small: just 13,000 soldiers and 1,200 members of the national guard. But Bahrain uses most of its annual $20 million in assistance from the United States to buy American weaponry and maintain a small fleet of American-made F16s and Abrams tanks. The sum is nowhere near what Bahrain actually spends on American weaponry from its own budget ($5.6 billion in 2008). Bahrain bought the 10 F-16s in 1998 for $390 million. The small nation has bought 70 Stinger missiles since 1990, and in 2007 it bought nine Blackhawk helicopters worth $252 million and six Bell search and rescue helicopters worth $160 million. .

Because of the United States’ close relations--and dependence--on Bahrain, successive administrations in the White House have mostly looked away from Bahrain’s poor human rights record and chronic oppression of the majority Shiite population by the minority Sunni ruling Al Khalifa family, in power since 1783--predating the adoption of the American Constitution.

Bahrain is one of the Arab world’s dictatorship: freedom of speech, of assembly and of religious practice is limited to non-existent if it does not abide by the ruling family’s precepts. And religious education in school denies the validity of Shiite teachings. Nevertheless, the United States calls Bahrain a friend and an ally.

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