For over two and a half years, since the start of demonstrations in Bahrain, various regional political analysts and human rights groups have questioned the wisdom of locating the U.S. Fifth Fleet in the island nation.
The United States has long supported Bahrain as a key regional ally, and the Fifth Fleet’s strategic importance is often blamed for the U.S. government’s stance on Bahrain’s domestic troubles.
The U.S. navy issued a statement in 2011 refuting reports about the base’s relocation. The announcement came just months after the beginning of Bahrain’s political crisis.
Despite the widely criticized actions of the Bahraini government, the United States was quick to assert it was not abandoning its presence in the country.
In fact, the United States is currently developing the Fifth Fleet’s facilities in Bahrain’s capital, Manama. According to a 2010 staff report presented to the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, the United States has started a five-year construction project worth US $580 million to develop its military and support facilities in Bahrain. The main port of Bahrain, Mina Salman, and the Shaikh Isa Air base are also set for further development.
At the same time, the continuing political crisis in Bahrain raises concerns that the nation is too unstable to host the Fifth Fleet, which is critical to U.S. interests in the region.
Recently, reports published by prominent U.S. navy commanders indicate the U.S. government has started to consider the potential need to relocate the military installation.
Many U.S. officials and strategic analysts acknowledge the geopolitical importance of retaining the Fifth Fleet’s presence in the Gulf. Douglas Katz, retired U.S. Navy Vice Admiral, said in October 2012 that the Gulf is vital for monitoring the Strait of Hormuz (a maritime chokepoint) to ensure the free flow of oil and commodities, for military and anti-piracy operations in neighboring waters, and to contain “Iran’s hegemonic ambitions.”
In January 2013, analysts Anthony Cordesman and Robert Shelala II from the Center for Strategic and International Studies published a report asserting the strategic importance of the Gulf and its global implications.
In March 2013, Simon Henderson of the Washington Institute echoed these sentiments in describing the Fifth Fleet as, “a vital and probably irreplaceable regional installation that helps secure energy transit routes out of the Persian Gulf.”
In February 2011, Cordesman stated that while fleet headquarters could be relocated from Bahrain, there is a risk to global oil markets if Bahrain comes under “Iranian influence” after the fleet’s departure.
U.S. Navy Commander Richard McDaniel recently called for contingency plans for the Fifth Fleet, in a report issued after two and a half years of instability in Bahrain.
In March 2013, the Carnegie Endowment’s Fredric Wehrey proposed Qatar and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) as alternative hosts for a US navy presence in the Gulf. He noted, however, that neither country was willing or able to host a base of the magnitude of the Fifth Fleet.
Most Qatar and UAE ports do not possess the necessary specifications to support U.S. naval vessels. As largely commercial hubs, a move to either of these ports would initially demand the Fifth Fleet share facilities, an unappealing prospect for U.S. navy officials.
Relocating from Bahrain would also necessitate substantial investment from U.S. taxpayers – this while facilities in Manama are currently undergoing development projects.
Should the U.S. government seriously entertain relocation, the most probable alternative is the UAE’s Jebel Ali port in Dubai, whose facilities are comparable to the current base in Manama.
In addition to the port’s logistical and commercial constraints, Frederic Wehrey has pointed out that the UAE has little incentive to host the Fifth Fleet. Unlike Bahrain, the UAE has enough wealth to purchase its own military items, and does not need to curry favors for the privilege of buying U.S. defense equipment
Recent reports suggest the U.S. government should use the Fifth Fleet’s potential relocation as political leverage in Bahrain’s domestic affairs. The threat of losing the U.S. military facilities could incentivize the Bahraini government to implement reform initiatives, possibly resulting in a more stable environment for the U.S. base.
However, as various experts have concluded, finding a suitable home for the Fifth Fleet beyond Bahrain is not an easy task, and the U.S. navy seems to have no intentions of abandoning its critical Gulf ally any time soon.