June 11, 2009: The U.S. is expanding its naval base in the Persian Gulf nation of Bahrain. The navy has taken over the Mina Salman port, which transferred all commercial operations to the new Khalifa bin Salman port two months ago. The navy is leasing 70 acres of waterfront space at Mina Salman. At the capital, the navy has an acre at the port there, and 42 acres at a nearby base. The new port is large enough to berth the largest U.S. ships (the Nimitz class carriers.) The port currently supports sixteen American warships operating in the area.
Thus the U.S. Navy has turned a minor naval station in the Persian Gulf, into one of its most crucial bases for the war on terrorism. The U.S. moved into a minor naval base in Bahrain in 1973, when the British gave it up. The Bahrainis, like most of the other small states along the west coast of the Persian Gulf, like to have some friendly Western power in residence. This provides some insurance against Saudi Arabia to the west, and Iran to the east. Before 1918, the British presence helped keep the Ottoman (Turkish) Empire off their backs as well. All the Bahrainis ask is that the foreign troops be quiet, and discreet. Until 2002, the Bahraini base was a place where U.S. warships could tie up for repairs, or recreation for the crews. About 3,600 American military personnel were stationed there. There was an airbase for navy and air force transports and warplanes. The Bahrainis denied much of this activity, so as to avoid getting pilloried by other Arab states. But Bahrain is a small place (a 655 square kilometer island about 20 kilometers off the Saudi coast, and a population of about 700,000), and it's difficult for things like warships and warplanes to go unnoticed.
In the last five years, several hundred million dollars has gone into building more permanent facilities. The trailers and other "temporary structures" were replaced by more permanent buildings and facilities. This included a new pier, just for military ships. There is a shopping center just for the military, and a lot of recreational facilities for the troops. Until 2004, some troops could bring their families. But now it's all military, and the brass try to keep everyone happy on base. It's a one year tour for most, but Bahrain is pretty popular. Living conditions are good, and the local Bahranis are pretty mellow and friendly by Middle Eastern standards.
While the Bahrani population is only 700,000, oil and gas provide a per-capita income of over $20,000. The oil is running out, so Bahrain has been recasting itself as an Arab playground and financial center, replacing Beirut, Lebanon (which ceased, for two decades, to play that role in the late 1970s because of a civil war). Bahrain has used a lot of their oil revenue to build infrastructure, and encouraged entrepreneurs to create shopping and entertainment facilities superior to anything available in the region. Unlike Saudi Arabia, which is connected to Bahrain by a causeway bridge, Bahrain does not enforce Islamic law on visitors or residents. Bahrain has, for centuries, been a port of call for ships, and sailors. That means booze and women were always available. But now there are also shopping malls, a full range of hotels, brothels, clubs and bars. Most of the business for the entertainment spots, comes from Saudi Arabia, but sailors, especially those from the 40-50 foreign warships that base themselves here, come a close second. A little over half the foreign sailors are American.
While generally peaceful, the country has many unhappy, and violence prone, citizens. The problems are many. First, there is the monarchy. Although competent, many of the educated citizens would prefer a democracy. Then there's the religion angle. The monarchy is Sunni, while two thirds of the population are Shia. Moreover, about 20 percent of the population are Christian and Hindu. This offends about ten percent of the population who are Islamic conservatives. Thus the police have a Shia majority that is often stirred up when the Islamic radicals get violent. Then the Shia villagers will take to the streets, and riot, if they feel the police are being too hard on Shia Islamic radicals. This violence rarely gets into the urban, and tourist, areas. But at times, the police have to warn visitors going outside the city, to avoid certain towns and villages. With all this, many American sailors, after one tour of duty in Bahrain, often volunteer to come right back.