US Should Move Navy Base from Bahrain

In the wake of the brutal crackdown by the monarchy of Bahrain on the largely peaceful protest movement this winter and spring, the United States needs to decouple from the small Gulf kingdom. Although the kingdom is lifting its state of emergency, distrust and tension remain high between the Shiite majority and the dominant Sunni minority.

The Wifaq Party, the biggest movement among the Arab Shiites of Bahrain, had asked for the country to move to being a constitutional monarchy. The repression was so heavy-handed that Wifaq members of the lower house (who held 18 out of 40 seats) have all resigned. When ordinary democratic political involvement is blocked, people turn to other ways of achieving their goals. Pushing the Shiite majority toward radicalism is a bad idea indeed. The Sunni hard liners in Bahrain see the Shiite majority a s cat’s paws of Shiite Iran. But Bahrain Shiites are mostly Arab, not Persian as in Iran. And a majority follows the Akhbari school of Shiism, which does not teach blind obedience (taqlid) to the ayatollahs. A small group of Shiite activists, al-Haqq, did call for a republic, but they were not in the mainstream of the reform movement, which mostly simply sought a rule of law and a more fair place for the Shiite majority.

The state has refused to allow its population the right of peaceable assembly and even petitioning the government has become dangerous. It is bad for the US to be seen to be uncaring in the face of the monarchy’s actions, which have left hundreds injured or imprisoned. Criticizing the government has been made illegal. Recently the secret police have begun going after women activists, according to NPR

Even a Jewish-American diplomat has been hounded out of the country with thuggish tactics (the whereabouts of his house, wife and children were broadcast with the implication that he be made the scapegoat for resentments against Obama’s mild criticism of the vicious crackdown).

The HQ of the US Fifth Fleet is at Manama, the capital of Bahrain. But there are other places such a naval base could be sited in the Gulf, including in Qatar.

Given the sentiments in President Obama’s recent speeches and his pledge to put the US on the side of reform in the region, it is ghoulish for the US to retain a major military facility in a country that has behaved as Bahrain has.

Andreas Gursky Bahrain

Andreas Gursky, "Bahrain"

Moreover, the idea that the Grand Prix Formula 1 race might now return to Bahrain, after 28 people were killed for standing in Pearl Square, and after hundreds have been arrested and put in stress positions, after mosques have been destroyed, etc.– that idea is obscene and should provoke consumer boycotts if it happens. (Bahrain has become associated with racing in the European and American mind to the extent that artist Andreas Gursky took it as a theme for his painting photograph, “Bahrain,” which I once saw at the Met in NYC.)

24 Responses

  1. Why is Qatar an acceptable alternative place for the naval base? I’ve spent several years in both countries and up until recent events Bahrain was significantly more liberal and open than Qatar, both in its political and everyday life.

    Do not mistake tranquillity on the streets for progress. Unlike Bahrain, Qatari society is fairly homogeneous, ie Sunni only, and significantly better off financially. Hence the ‘Arab Spring’ has by-passed Qatar. However, should dissent ever arise in Qatar, it would be surprising if the response from the authorities would be anything other than that as recently carried out by the rulers in Bahrain.

    Qatar is perhaps the perfect exemplar of a society where, provided the nationals have plenty of money for large houses, built and staffed by slaves/servants (take your pick) from emerging countries, the latest autos and numerous malls to buy all manner of furnishings, electronics and gadgets, then there is no concern or interest at all in politics – in the broadest sense – how society should function. Instead, life is just one big shopping fest as the oil and gas dollars come flooding in. The observations of Dostoyevsky’s Grand Inquisitor spring to mind.

    • Actually most Qatari citizens are Hanbalis/ Wahhabis. About ten percent are Shiite. There are only about 200,000 of them. The Shiites in Qatar tell me they are happy with the emir, and even 25 years ago the Shiites in Bahrain were telling me that the Al Thani are much nicer to the Shiites than the Al Khalifa. We don’t know how Sheikh Hamad would handle demonstrations, but actually I think you are underestimating him. In any case, he hasn’t behaved as Bahrain has.

      • You know, the Hanbali school is actually one of the four Sunni schools; you know: Hanahfi, Shafiee, Maliki, Hanbali?

        Wahhabism, I believe, is not actually, in the strict sense, a “school”, but more of a methodology, and can be associated with/exist in the other sunni schools as well.

        • The Wahhabis were originally not Sunnis, but accommodated to Sunnism by adopting the Hanbali school.

    • Since we’re talking about the Persian Gulf region, I think finding a truly progressive regime is setting the bar a bit high.

      I’ll settle for one that isn’t unleashing state security to use lethal force against peaceful citizens.

  2. So the US should move its base to another dictatorship that is accountable to the US embassy rather than to its own people?

    What if the protests had been in Qatar? Would you be saying now that the US should move its air base to Bahrain?

    Moving from one colonial dictatorship to another just addresses the symptom and not the illness. The US commitment to Israel as a Jewish state makes cooperation between the US and popularly accountable governments in the Middle East impossible. That puts the US, especially under pro-Israel US presidents like George Bush and Barack Obama, solidly and objectively on the side of despotism and against democracy.

    If the US has decided that Israel as a Jewish state is worth hundreds of millions of Arabs living in colonial dictatorships like Bahrain, then it should admit what everybody already knows and just leave its bases where they are.

    • A very good, thought-provoking perspective, Arnold. I wonder if the editor has any comments on this.

  3. Juan, the work “Bahrain” by Andreas Gursky is assuredly a photographic print, rather than a painting. The piece is currently in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, New York.

  4. I agree completely, but President Obama will surely not even consider moving the military base. President Obama only cares about support for American policy in the Middle East and will cater to any despot for that reason. That should be easily obvious.

    • “President Obama only cares about support for American policy in the Middle East and will cater to any despot for that reason.”

      Ah, so THAT’S why he backed the pro-American dictators in Egypt and Tunisia against the protesters. Oh, wait.

      Old narratives need to be checked against new facts every six months or so.

  5. “The HQ of the US Fifth Fleet is at Manama, the capital of Bahrain. But there are other places such a naval base could be sited in the Gulf, including in Qatar.”

    Send them to your own gulf, that of Mexico.

  6. Mr. Cole: I appreciate your opinions and I just don’t get why our navy is in Bahrain while ruthless savages are killing people in the streets, incl. women and kids. Why not move to Diego Garcia? Overall, I think we should get out of the Mideast altogether. Prof. Bacewich writes this in Newsweek, Apr 11,2011 and quit meddling in their affairs. The lessons of the Brits and the French should be guides. I know we won’t due to OIL and the US Israeli Lobby, period.

  7. Fahd makes a very good point; why do we need -really need,not desire- the 5th fleet to be based anywhere in the ME?

  8. I know you’ll likely censor this comment, Juan (as you have in the past) but Shia experts such as Vali Nasr in his book “The Shia Revival” have detailed the Iranian extractions of many of Bahrain’s Shiites. Although they do so behind closed doors, many Bahraini Shiite families actually speak Persian. That they are forced to so in underground fashion is due to the repression of the Al Khalifa dictatorship.

    • I don’t censor comments; I take them as letters to the editor and print them if they seem worthwhile.

      I have actually been to Bahrain and written about Shiism there academically. The Shiites of Bahrain are of two sorts, `Ajamis and Baharna. The former are of Iranian extraction, though some have been there so long they don’t speak Persian any more. The Baharna are Arabs; most people in small towns outside the capital are Baharna. The `Ajamis, many of whom are Usulis following ayatollahs, are a minority of the Shiites. Most Baharna, at least last I knew, are Akhbaris who do not believe in taqlid or blindly following ayatollahs.

    • Pirouz.. DR. Vali Nasr as much as he is educated and did a very good job in his book but many things in his book are in accurate in my opinion. His area of expertise is pakistan rather than bahrain….
      The bahraini race are 3 kinds:
      1. The indigenous (Baharna) mostly are Shia they are of the oldest shia community in the world and dont speak iranian.
      2. (Ajam) who are originally from Iran and most of them speak persian, and they are mixed between shia and sunna and a lot of them are in fact sunni.
      3. (Arab)from arabian peninsula the ruling family is among them they are sunni. Recently in the last 20 or so years fourth race came in to bahrain and they are called (Mujanaseen) it means “naturalized to become bahraini” many of them are in the police force and they are from pakistan, yemen, jordan and syria and even Saudi arabia.
      Thank you…
      By the Fahad has a point… however Empires thrive on expansion and funny this will lead ultimately to their weakness… Read History…

  9. The US has around 175 american navy around the world! This has so negative impact on the US:
    (1)Who is paying the cost of this? Either the US out of the heavy taxes they impose or by the civilians of the country being occupied.
    (2) They are spreading their aggressive policy around the globe. Most of the people are anti-america, although ameican people are very kind and peaceful.
    (3) They are spreading war throughout the earth. The earth is not peaceful any more. Every where is occupied by America. They pretend to find the terror, but actually they have strong contact with Al Qaeda, who are running their operations basis US instructions. They have destroyed Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Yemen and the gulf. The US pentagon arranged the flight for Bin Ladin to run away after the 11 Sept events. They can not mislead the world, not any more.
    (4) US is focusing on invading the world, but not solving theie internal problems. Every president leaves is cursed by the american.
    It is time for the US to localise and stop destroying this planet. This awakening is not away from them.
    The main purpose of having this navy in Bahrain and the Middle East in general is (1) protect israel (2)protect israel (3) protect israel (999) protect oil facilities. They don’t need to safeguard oil facilities because over the history they have never been attacked. They create suspicion around Iran and Hisbullah, because they want to dominate this area. Iran and Hisbullah will never attack. US knows this very well, but using DIVIDE AND RULE. These two are ruled by Islam basic rule namely, “do not attak but when attacked defend yourself”. Please note that Saddam invation was blessed by the US behind the scenes.

    The bottom line, if the US doesn’t stop its aggressive policy, the nations will stop her. Only rule of God will apply, not America. Their watch dog “Israel” will be smashed, if they don’t change as well.

  10. Hello there what about removing al khlifa family to any desert and keeping the us fifth fleet, i think people of Bahrain would accept that option

  11. A few notes:

    1. You seem to view people as some kind of dog race. Shi’i of Bahrain may or may not have strong sympathies to Iran; however it has nothing to do whether they are Persian, Arab or a mix thereof (most people have mixed throughout the ages). Hence, the idea that they are Arabic-speaking and therefore against Iran is a stupid suggestion made by the mainstream media which you seem to be repeating here. If they do oppose aspects of the Iranian government’s policies it would be precisely because of those policies and not because they are Arabic-speakers.

    2. The majority of Bahraini Shi’is (Arabic and Persian speaking) are usoolis. Akhbaris are disappearingly small in comparison.

    As for the original topic of the article, I have a better suggestion: Close down all bases in the Persian Gulf and retreat the forces back to the U.S., remove all unnecessary expenditures and focus on improving the lives of Americans.

  12. if you want really IRAN to take over the whole GULF, then you are welcome to call for the Navy to leave bahrain its like Achilles’ heel where it will be the weak part and then IRAN can explode every other inch in the gulf, you may not see what is the danger at this time but be sure that it will be much more deadly then current sitaution in IRAQ or Afghanistan or any religous presence in a country

    please do understand what the bahraini royal family is doing, all the real bahraini people want peace and nothing else

    when IRAN calls the bahraini street to go in protests so that more people get killed while clashing with the police.

    this is something can happen as the latest clashes in UK and other euro counties … what we all ask is peace in our land in our bahrain … we lost more than we can recover that is for sure and am not saying money/commodities … we are losing our soles, lives and it is only generating more HATE that no one can handle anymore.

    please do understand our peace calls please understand that we don’t want walk into darkness no one know how the hell this is gone end when the government is trying to put out the fire and others still add more fuel to the burns

    everyone is gone get hurt – government and people – both will be harmed and they will have the smoke of that fire

  13. Thank you very much for this article & just from a humanitarian point,
    How is a constitutional Monarchy demanded after the death of at least 28 protesters including (men,women,children) ?
    In the 6 year old children minds, how are they going to accept the rule of a man whom KILLED their fathers,brothers,mothers,sisters ?
    This self named king must be brought to court for committing Genocide & war crimes !!

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