A number of events in July again highlighted the difficult situation a two-year old anti-government uprising is posing for the US naval presence in Bahrain.
It was reported that three US surveillance ships had docked in Bahrain as Washington planned to double its presence in the region amid escalating tensions with Iran.
The new hardware will support maritime security operations carried out by the Fifth Fleet and by spring its size is likely to have increased to ten ships based permanently in Bahrain.
Just days after this announcement, reports claimed a Bahraini policeman had been killed in a bomb explosion as security forces attempted to deal with a suspected terror attack on a police station.
The island state of Bahrain has come under intense scrutiny since violent unrest broke out in 2011. Several deaths have been attributed to protests in the capital Manama, while the government has been accused of suppressing dissent in a bid to hold onto power.
In the midst of these ongoing tensions, a report from a US think tank has posed a previously unthinkable question: is it time for the Fifth Fleet to leave Bahrain?
“In view of the ongoing political unrest, the possibility of losing strategic basing rights in Bahrain is something that should be carefully considered,” says US Navy Commander Richard McDaniel, author of No “Plan B”: US Strategic Access in the Middle East and the Question of Bahrain.
According to McDaniel, the conventional wisdom among most military experts and planners in the US Department of Defence is that “losing Fifth Fleet headquarters in Bahrain is unlikely” and “the Saudis and the United States would never allow it”.
This theory is backed by Christopher Harmer, a senior naval analyst at the Washington, DC-based Institute for the Study of War. “It is unlikely that the US will initiate the process of exiting from Bahrain any time soon. We have spent too much money and effort building it up. The US is most likely to contribute to a negotiated solution to the unrest in Bahrain if we keep the base there. If the US were to leave Bahrain, we would lose any ability to influence the outcome.”
While losing Bahrain is not seen as a likely outcome at present, McDaniel believes that while the political situation in Bahrain remains uncertain, the US “must investigate viable alternatives as a hedge strategy”.
“Recent history, such as the loss of access in Iran and the Philippines, has taught us to expect the unexpected and highlights the reality that the US does not influence every factor that contributes to the loss of access.”
So where are the Plan B options and is there any real alternative to Bahrain? McDaniel points first to Jebel Ali port in the United Arab Emirates. The US Navy already uses the port on a routine basis for visits to Dubai to replenish stores and conduct limited maintenance.
However, while this would be a potential short-term choice, McDaniel says there are two factors which would rule out Jebel Ali. “It remains uncertain whether the United Arab Emirates would be willing to accommodate such a large increase in permanently based US forces. Today in the UAE, there is no existing status of forces agreement (SOFA), which limits service member presence in-country,” he says.
Another consideration is that Jebel Ali is primarily a commercial port and the addition of a large number of permanent military vessels would be a big strain on facilities. “Jebel Ali is a commercial port and with ship berths at a premium, the more profitable choice is to host commercial vessels. Consequently, US vessels do not always have top priority,” he says.
In his analysis, Harmer believes the two most likely Plan B options would be the Kuwait Naval Base or New Doha Port in Qatar. “There are a number of locations where the Fifth Fleet could relocate to on a temporary basis. While none of these locations would be as good as Bahrain, they could function effectively as a short-term solution. The most obvious short-term solution would be Kuwait Naval Base… It has a decent pier, significant shore facilities, and up until recently hosted as many as 3,000 servicemen,” he says.
Kuwait’s Shuaiba Port is another candidate, adds McDaniel. It is strategically located 33 miles south of Kuwait City, and is the only port in the country with the depths necessary to support US combat ships.
Shuaiba Port also has 20 commercial and container berths and a pier depth of 16 metres, more than the 12.5 metres needed by US Navy ships. Once additional dredging projects and construction of a maintenance infrastructure on shore are completed, this could be a perfect alternative to Bahrain, says McDaniel.
On the diplomatic side, the US has good relations with Kuwait’s ruling family. According to US Congressional research, the US and Kuwait signed a ten-year SOFA in September 2001, which is currently being renegotiated and is likely to be approved for another term.
Of the alternative options on the table, most analysts Arabian Business spoke to believe Qatar is the prime candidate for Plan B — specifically the New Doha Port, which is currently under development and set to begin operations in 2016. McDaniel believes this would make it the most practical option as it can be designed around the exact requirements of any US naval fleet.
“Stationing naval forces in Qatar is quite feasible because a defence pact with the government already exists and the Qataris have been extremely accommodating when hosting the US military,” he says.
The Gulf state is already home to the Al Udeid Air Base, the regional headquarters for the US Central Command and the US Air Force Command.
Ghanem Nuseibeh, founder of the think tank Cornerstone Global Associates, also believes Doha is the best alternative.
Nuseibeh says that the Doha port was highlighted in McDaniel’s report, which was written for the Washington, DC-based Brookings Institution, a non-profit, independent policy development organisation, is significant.
“Bear in mind that Brookings are both close to the US government and are also close to the Qatari government. The advice they are therefore making public is likely to have resulted from consultations in both Doha and Washington,” he believes.
Despite the various plans on offer, Dr Christopher Davidson, head of Middle East politics at the UK’s Durham University, is dismissive of talk of the US withdrawing from Bahrain. “I think it is imperative that the US does develop a ‘Plan B’, however I believe that it currently does not have, nor is intending to develop one,” he states.
Even if this is the case, Nuseibeh says that the US has already begun to pull out of Bahrain on a commercial level and US companies are being advised against setting up operations there. “On the security advisory now, most American companies are being told not to have their [regional] headquarters in Bahrain for security reasons. The damage of the Americans commercially pulling out of Bahrain, and they have pulled out anyway, could be much greater than the military. It would be a further blow for a very difficult situation.”
Many commercial US operations have put in place a Plan B and are already looking to the UAE or Qatar: “On a security level, American companies are being told not to go [to Bahrain]. If they are looking for a regional base then they go to Dubai and if they want work in Qatar — then the Qataris like to have American companies based there. The Qatari government has made it very clear that anyone who wants to work in Qatar will have to be based in Qatar and [they are] becoming more and more aggressive in that.”
In a final twist, McDaniel asks why the Fifth Fleet cannot ship out back to US waters. “Some argue that the United States should ‘cut its losses’ and base US forces back home,” he says. “While this is attractive in terms of costs, arguments that the United States military could be equally effective when based at home are problematic. Some of the biggest drawbacks with basing forces out of the US are delayed response times,” he counters. Should a military emergency occur in the region, it would take nineteen days to sail from California to the Gulf — hardly a rapid response.
Regardless of its short or long-term plans, the US needs to show it has some kind of Plan B in place in order to demonstrate its commitment to staying in the Gulf, regardless of what happens in Bahrain, says Greg Ohannessian, an analyst at Dubai-based Institute for Near East & Gulf Military Analysis.
“The Fifth Fleet is central to the current security umbrella, and not having a Plan B is sure to make America’s Arab allies even more unsure of their commitment. In the short term, US leadership is acutely aware that, regardless of realities on the ground, they have failed to properly communicate their commitment to their Gulf allies and without assurances regarding the future viability of the Fifth Fleet, that message will be all the more difficult to convey,” he advises.
From Washington to Dubai, the consensus is that the US needs to put in place a clear plan, make this known to its regional allies and assuage fears that if they do pull out it won't leave a power vacuum that could lead to further uncertainty.
Where now for the US Fifth Fleet?
Manama has been home to the US Fifth Fleet since it was reactivated in 1995, following a 48-year hiatus. However, the island state of Bahrain has come under intense scrutiny since unrest began in 2011, prompting some analysts to question whether the fleet should be moved.
The US Navy already uses the port on a routine basis for visits to Dubai to replenish stores and conduct limited maintenance. It remains unclear though whether authorities would be willing to accommodate a permanent military presence.
New Doha Port
Currently under development and set to begin operations in 2016. Some analysts see this as the most likely ‘Plan B’, due to the extremely good relations between the Qataris and the Americans, as well as the port’s modern infrastructure.
Strategically located 33 miles south of Kuwait City, it is the only port in the country with the depths necessary to support US combat ships. It is currently undergoing dredging and the development of maintenance facilities which could make it even more suitable.
Subscribe to Arabian Business' newsletter to receive the latest breaking news and business stories in Dubai,the UAE and the GCC straight to your inbox.