Wednesday, February 16, 2011
U.S. Military Interests at Stake in Bahraini Unrest
According to the CIA Factbook: In 1783, the al-Khalifa family captured Bahrain from the Persians. In order to secure these holdings, it entered into a series of treaties with the UK during the 19th century that made Bahrain a British protectorate. The archipelago attained its independence in 1971. Bahrain has turned to petroleum processing and refining and has transformed itself into an international banking center. King HAMAD bin Isa al-Khalifa, after coming to power in 1999, pushed economic and political reforms to improve relations with the Shia community. Shia political societies participated in 2010 parliamentary and municipal elections. Al Wifaq, the largest Shia political society, won the largest number of seats in the elected chamber of the legislature. However, Shia discontent has resurfaced in recent years with street demonstrations and occasional low-level violence.
Bahrain is also relatively progressive, allowing Western tourists to engage in such inappropriate behaviors as sunbathing (with members of the opposite sex) and the consumption of alcohol. These policies as well as strategic location made Bahrain an ideal location for the US Navy's 5th Fleet. The US Navy 5th Fleet is responsible for naval forces in the Persian Gulf, Red Sea, Arabian Sea, and coast off East Africa as far south as Kenya.
The 5th Fleet operates at least one aircraft carrier in the Gulf at all times, along with an "amphibious ready group" of ships with Marines aboard. Their presence is central to a longstanding U.S. commitment to ensuring the free flow of oil through the Gulf, while keeping an eye on a hostile Iran and seeking to deter piracy in the region.
Now unrest that started in Tunisia and spread to Algeria and Egypt has spread to Bahrain, as a result the US military may directly face protesters.
It appears for now the Bahrain, along with backing from Saudi Arabia, maybe able to handle the protests. However, if the situation escalates the protesters may create more foreign policy challenges for the US in the region.