July 4, 2009:
The U.S. Department of Defense now allows accompanied tours for military personnel stationed at the U.S. 5th Fleet headquarters in the Persian Gulf Kingdom of Bahrain. These are two year tours. Last year, spouses, and children over 18 were allowed to accompany military personnel. But that was announced as a temporary measure, until sufficient schools and other facilities could be arranged for younger dependents. For example, the schools (K-12) remained open when the dependents left in 2004, and took in tuition paying non-American students.
Troops were allowed to have families in Bahrain until 2004, when they were ordered out because of the terrorist threat. But al Qaeda is much less of a danger now, and the 3,000 military personnel in Bahrain (mostly sailors and marines) can at least bring in spouses and adult children. This also means that the 12 month unaccompanied (by dependents) tours become 24 month accompanied tours. The U.S. Navy has spent $240 million upgrading the naval base, to provide more facilities for dependents.
Bahrain has become a major American base in the Persian Gulf, with about 3,000 U.S. personnel serving there. During the 1990s, Bahrain began providing port facilities for destroyers and frigates enforcing the Iraqi embargo, and other support for the U.S. carrier task force that operates in the Persian Gulf. The Bahrain air base of Shaikh Isa was fitted out to support about a hundred U.S. warplanes. Britain bases aerial tankers in Bahrain as well.
Further south, the U.S. spent $1.4 billion to develop the al Udeid air base in Qatar. In addition to supporting over a hundred warplanes, Al Udeid also contains communications facilities and bunkers that can house headquarters for major military operations in the Persia Gulf. Still further south, another air base was built in Oman at Musnanah. The U.S. and Britain also use several existing air bases in Oman.
Bahrain is an island kingdom off the coast of Saudi Arabia. Population is only 700,000, and a third of those are foreigners (non-Arab). Bahrain has long been pro-West, mainly as a way to prevent takeover by Iran (or mainland Arabs). Bahrain is currently the main base for the U.S. 5th Fleet, and a major American military operation in the region. Bahrain replaced Beirut as the most popular Arab banking center, during the 1975-90 Lebanese civil war. Bahrain is also a major tourist destinations, mainly for Saudis looking for some relief from the lifestyle police back home. You can get a drink, and much else, in Bahrain.
For centuries, Bahrain has been claimed by Iran, and about half the population is Shia (40 percent are Sunni and the rest non-Moslem). Like Shia Arabs throughout the region, they are the poorest segment of the population, and susceptible to radical Shia preachers calling for justice and revenge. The current unrest is all about money. The Shia don't have it, and have never had it. The Bahraini economy is booming, from oil, tourism and all manner of commercial services. But the Shia, who do not have a tradition of keeping their kids in school for long, are not able to compete. Radical Shia clergy preach that the poverty is because of religious persecution. This is believed by enough young, unemployed (or unsatisfied) men and teenagers to create an angry mob from time to time. The radical clerics get their best response from their followers when "compensation" (for past wrongs) is demanded. The resulting violence is spun by the radicals as "oppression", and the cycle continues.
The royal family backs economic and political reforms. This has worked, but not well enough for Shia and Sunni religious radicals. The Sunni radicals consider the Shia to be heretics, as well as a threat to Sunni control of Bahrain. The Shia radicals feel they should be running the kingdom as a religious dictatorship. Shia religious and political activists have motivated most Shia to vote, and the parliament has a large Shia block. The government does not believe the Shia radicals can take control by force, but some of the Shia radicals do. The violence will continue until enough Shia parents get their kids educated well enough to partake of Bahrain's prosperity. The radical clergy will always be there.