By Kenneth Katzman
U.S.-Bahrain relations are intimate and mutually reinforcing, thereby raising the stakes for the United States in the February 2011 unrest. A U.S. Embassy in Manama, Bahrain’s capital, opened in September 1971, when the threat level in the Persian Gulf was perceived as relatively low.
Since then, defense issues have become a central feature of U.S.-Bahrain relations. Although Iraq is no longer a strategic threat to the region because it cannot project power outside its borders, Iran’s nuclear program is considered a growing threat to the Persian Gulf states, including Bahrain. There is also the issue of terrorism and piracy in the Gulf, as exemplified by a July 28, 2010, explosion on a Japanese oil tanker in that waterway. The explosion is widely suspected to have been a terrorist attack, and a faction linked to Al Qaeda (Abdullah Azzam Brigades) claimed responsibility.
In large part to keep powerful neighbors in check, Bahrain has long linked its security to the United States, and U.S. efforts to address threats in Iraq, Iran, and Afghanistan have benefitted from access to Bahraini facilities. In recognition of the relationship, in March 2002, President Bush (Presidential Determination 2002-10) designated Bahrain a “major non-NATO ally (MNNA),” a designation that facilitates U.S. arms sales. February 2008 marked the 60th anniversary of a U.S. naval command presence in Bahrain; MIDEASTFOR (U.S. Middle East Force), its successor, NAVCENT (naval component of U.S.
Central Command), and the Fifth Fleet (reconstituted in June 1995) have been headquartered there. The Fifth Fleet headquarters is a command facility that now covers over 100 acres, and about 2,300 U.S. personnel, mostly Navy, are assigned there.6 Some smaller U.S. ships (minesweepers) are docked there, but the Fifth Fleet also consists of a Carrier Battle Group, an Amphibious Ready Group, and various other ships that are afloat or which dock elsewhere in the region. To further develop the naval command facility (referred to as “Bahrain Island”), recent appropriations and requests include $54 million for FY2008 (including $19 million for a Special Operations Forces facility);7 no funds for FY2009; $41.5 million for FY2010 (P.L. 111-117); and a requested $258 million for FY 2011 for several facilities in Bahrain, including Bahrain Island. Of that request, $45 million is to expand an apron at Shaykh Isa Air Base.
Cooperation With U.S. Operations in Iraq and Afghanistan
Bahrain and the United States signed a 10-year defense pact signed on October 28, 1991, seven months after the war to liberate Kuwait from Iraq, and renewed in October 2001. The pact not only provides the United States access to Bahrain’s air bases and to pre-position strategic materiel (mostly U.S. Air Force munitions), but also requires consultations with Bahrain if its security is threatened, and it expanded exercises and U.S. training of Bahraini forces.8
The naval headquarters, the U.S. use of which predated the defense pact, has been used to coordinate the operations of over 20 U.S. warships performing support missions for U.S. and allied naval operations related to the U.S. military operations ongoing in Iraq and Afghanistan.
These ships are also part of Combined Task Force (CTF) 152 that seeks to interdict the movement of terrorists, arms, or weapons of mass destruction (WMD)-related technology and narcotics across the Arabian Sea. Bahrain has taken a turn in a rotation to command CTF-152. Some of these operations are part of or offshoots of Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) in Afghanistan, which ousted the Taliban after the September 11 attacks. Bahrain allowed the United States to fly combat missions from its bases (Shaykh Isa Air Base) in both OEF and the war to oust Saddam Hussein in March-April 2003 (Operation Iraqi Freedom, OIF). During both OEF and OIF, Bahrain publicly deployed its U.S.-supplied frigate warship (the Subha) to help protect U.S. ships, and it sent ground and air assets to Kuwait in support of OIF. Bahrain hosted about 4,000 U.S. military personnel during major combat of OEF (October 2001-May 2003).
Bahrain and UAE have been the only Gulf states to deploy their own forces to provide aid to Afghanistan. In 2009, Bahrain sent 100 police officers to Afghanistan on a two-year tour to help U.S./NATO-led stabilization operations there.
U.S. forces were in Bahrain well before the September 11 attacks occurred. There were about 1,300 U.S. military personnel in Bahrain during the 1990s to contain Iraq, and Bahrain was part of the allied coalition that ousted Iraq from Kuwait in 1991, hosting 17,500 troops and 250 combat aircraft at Shaykh Isa Air Base (mentioned above). Bahraini pilots flew strikes over Iraq during the war, and Iraq fired nine Scud missiles at Bahrain during the war, of which three hit facilities there. Bahrain hosted the regional headquarters for U.N. weapons inspections in Iraq during 1991-1998, and the U.S.-led Multinational Interdiction Force (MIF) that enforced a U.N. embargo on Iraq during 1991-2003.
Bahrain’s participation in OIF came despite domestic opposition in Bahrain to that war. Because of its limited income, Bahrain has not contributed funds to Iraq reconstruction, but it attended the “Expanded Neighbors of Iraq” regional conference process which last met in Kuwait on April 22, 2008. That process has been suspended as Iraq has stabilized and the United States has begun the process of withdrawal, expected to be complete by the end of 2011. On October 16, 2008, Bahrain’s first post-Saddam ambassador to Iraq (Saleh Ali al-Maliki) presented his credentials in Baghdad, in line with King Hamad’s pledge to President Bush in March 2008. Some of the other Gulf states, most notably Saudi Arabia, have still not established a full embassy in Iraq, in part due to differences between Saudi Arabia and the Shiite led government of Prime Minister Nuri al- Maliki.
U.S. Arms Transfers and Military Aid
To assist Bahrain’s ability to cooperate with the United States on regional security issues, Congress and successive Administrations, citing Bahrain’s limited income, have supported military assistance to Bahrain’s small force. The main recipient of such assistance is the relatively small Bahrain Defense Force (BDF), which has about 13,000 personnel (plus about 1,200 National Guard). The BDF and the police are run by Sunni Bahrainis, but are said to supplement their ranks with unknown percentages of paid Sunni Muslim recruits from neighboring countries, including Pakistan, Yemen, Jordan, Iraq, and elsewhere.
Bahrain is eligible to receive grant “excess defense articles” (EDA). The United States transferred the FFG-7 “Perry class” frigate Subha (see above) as EDA in July 1997. In 1996, the United States gave Bahrain a no-cost five-year lease on 60 M60A3 tanks; title subsequently passed to Bahrain. Foreign Military Financing (FMF) was suspended for Bahrain in FY1994 but restarted in appreciation of Bahrain’s support in OEF and OIF. Recent FMF has been provided to help Bahrain maintain U.S.-origin weapons, to enhance inter-operability with U.S. forces, to augment Bahrain’s air defenses, to support its F-16 fleet, and to improve counter-terrorism capabilities.
Some of the U.S. assistance provided to Bahrain is to help Bahrain keep the F-16s sufficiently updated to operate alongside U.S. warplanes. Funds provided under “Section 1206” of the National Defense Authorization Act of 2006 (P.L. 109-163) have been used to improve Bahrain’s coastal surveillance capabilities and to build up its Special Operations forces. The Defense Department estimates that, in part due to U.S. assistance, as of FY2008, about 45% of Bahrain’s forces are fully capable of integrating into a U.S.-led coalition. Making Bahrain’s forces interoperable with U.S. forces, and helping Bahrain upgrade its U.S.-made F-16s with improved avionics, and maintain the frigate Subha, are the primary justifications for the substantial increase in requested assistance to Bahrain for FY2010. The requested funding levels for FY2011 are roughly the same as FY2010 levels. The FY2012 requested level is likely to be similar; exact breakdowns are not available to date.
Purchases With National Funds
Despite its limited funds (Bahrain’s total government budget was about $5.6 billion in 2008), Bahrain has purchased some U.S. systems. In 1998, Bahrain purchased 10 U.S.-made F-16Cs from new production, worth about $390 million. In 1999, the United States sold Bahrain 26 Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missiles (AMRAAM) to arm the F-16s, although some members were concerned that the AMRAAM sale could promote an arms race in the Gulf.
Section 581 of the FY1990 foreign operations appropriation act (P.L. 101-167) made Bahrain the only Gulf state eligible to receive the STINGER shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missile, and the United States has sold Bahrain about 70 Stingers since 1990. (This authorization has been repeated in subsequent legislation.) To allay congressional concerns about possible U.S. promotion of missile proliferation in the region, an August 2000 sale of 30 Army Tactical Missile Systems (ATACMs, a system of short-range ballistic missiles fired from a multiple rocket launcher) included an agreement for joint U.S.-Bahraini control of the weapon. Among recent sales notified to Congress by the Defense Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA) are a sale, worth up to $42 million, of 180 “Javelin” anti-armor missiles and 60 launch units; a sale, worth up to $252 million, of nine UH-60M Blackhawk helicopters; a sale, notified August 3, 2007, of six Bell search and recovery helicopters, valued at about $160 million; and a sale, notified on July 28, 2009, of up to 25 AMRAAMs (Raytheon Missile Systems Corp.) and associated equipment, valued at about $74 million.
Some of the most recent sales are in accordance with the State Department’s “Gulf Security Dialogue,” begun in 2006 to counter Iran, and under which a total of about $20 billion worth of U.S. weapons might be sold to the Gulf monarchy states. Only a small portion of that total sales volume is reportedly slated for Bahrain.
The State Department’s report on international terrorism for 2009 (released August 5, 2010) credits Bahrain for having “actively monitored terrorism suspects” and for achieving convictions of five men accused of membership of a terrorist organization—the first use of a 2006 counterterrorism law. The report, however, as did the same report of the previous year, notes that Bahrain has not overcome legal constraints that have sometimes hampered its ability to detain and prosecute suspected terrorists.
Bahrain also continues to host the Middle East and North Africa Financial Action Task Force (MENA/FATF) secretariat and its Central Bank, Financial Information Unit (within the Central Bank), and local banks cooperate with U.S. efforts against terrorism financing and money laundering. As noted by the State Department in the FY2011 budget justification, some of the U.S. assistance to Bahrain is to facilitate Bahrain’s ability to contribute to U.S.-led counter-piracy operations in regional waterways, and to provide training to its counter-terrorism institutions.
Cooperation on Iran
As noted previously, Bahrain focuses its foreign policy intently on Iran, which has purportedly demonstrated an ability to aggravate Bahrain’s domestic turmoil to a greater degree than has any other regional power. Bahrain perceives Iran as willing and able to support Shiite groups against Bahrain’s Sunni-dominated government, a concern that was heightened by the Shiite-Sunni sectarian violence in Iraq during 2006-2008. In December 1981, and then again in June 1996, Bahrain publicly accused Iran of trying to organize a coup by pro-Iranian Bahraini Shiites (the Islamic Front for the Liberation of Bahrain, IFLB). Bahrain’s leaders have hinted that Iran might be supporting the February 2011 unrest, an assertion that most experts believe lacks concrete evidentiary support. However, as noted above, Iran is likely to exert far greater influence over a Shiite-dominated Bahrain than it does over the current government.
Bahrain’s fears are amplified by lingering suspicions, sometimes fed by Iranian actions, that Iran never accepted the results of the 1970 U.N. survey giving Bahrain independence rather than integration with Iran. Those findings were endorsed by U.N. Security Council Resolution 278, which was ratified by Iran’s parliament. After these official determinations, Bahrain had considered the issue closed, after over a century of Persian contestation of Bahraini sovereignty. Those contests included an effort by Reza Shah Pahlavi of Iran in the 1930s to deny Bahrain the right to grant oil concessions to the United States and Britain.
In recent years, Bahrain’s leadership—and other countries in the region—have reacted strongly against statements by Iranian editorialists and advisers to Iranian leaders appearing to reassert Iran’s claim. One such example was a July 2007 Iranian newspaper article reasserting the Iranian claim to Bahrain. However, that article, along with the Bahraini Crown Prince’s November 3, 2007, comment that Iran is developing a nuclear weapon (Iran claims it is developing only civilian nuclear power), did not mar the visit of Iranian President Ahmadinejad on November 17, 2007. At the same time, so as not to provide Iran a pretext to pressure Bahrain, Bahrain’s leaders have sometimes tried to silence voices in Bahrain that publicly attack Iran. An example is the one-day suspension in 2009 of the newspaper Akhbar al Khaleej (Gulf News) for running an editorial by a Bahrain Shura Council member who criticized Iranian leaders.
Bahrain has generally supported the U.S. position that Iran is not fully cooperating with U.N. Security Council requirements to verifiably demonstrate that its nuclear program is not a cover for a nuclear weapons program. In the joint news conference with Secretary Clinton on December 3, 2010, referenced earlier, the Foreign Minister restated Bahrain’s support for Iran’s right to nuclear power for peaceful uses. However, it stated forthright that “when it comes to taking that [nuclear] power, to developing it into a cycle for weapon grade, that is something that we can never accept, and we can never live with in this region.”9 Bahrain also regularly invites highranking Iranian officials to the annual International Institute for Security Studies (IISS) conference in Bahrain called the “Manama Dialogue,” held every December. At times, there have been expectations that U.S. officials might meet with Iranian officials at the margins of the conference, although such meetings have not taken place in practice. Iranian officials have sometimes been known to cancel their travel to the meeting on short notice, particularly if they sense that the conference will feature U.S. or other criticism of Iran.
Bahrain-Iran Gas Development Deal and Other Economic Ties
One of the ways Bahrain stays engaged with Iran is through discussions of major energy projects with Iran and by conducting normal trade and banking ties with it. The 2007 Ahmadinejad visit resulted in a preliminary agreement for Bahrain to buy 1.2 billion cubic feet per day (for 25 years) of Iranian gas via an undersea pipeline to be built. The deal would have involved a $4 billion investment by Bahrain to develop Phases 15 and 16 of Iran’s South Pars gas field, which presumably would be the source of the gas that Bahrain would import.
This deal was suspended after comments in March 2009 by former Iranian parliament speaker Ali Akbar Nateq Nuri, now an advisor to Iran’s Supreme Leader, again referring to Bahrain as Iran’s 14th province. This is a sensitive issue for Bahrain, as discussed above. Iran’s Foreign Ministry immediately tried to limit any diplomatic damage by asserting respect for Bahrain’s sovereignty and independence, but some Arab governments sharply criticized the Nateq Nuri comments. Morocco broke relations with Iran as a response. On October 21, 2009, Bahrain’s Minister of Oil and Gas Abd al-Husayn Mirza said talks on the deal would “resume soon.”
Bahrain conducts relatively normal trade with Iran and hosts Iranian economic investments. In March 2008, the U.S. Department of Justice sanctioned Future Bank, headquartered in Bahrain, because it is controlled and partially owned by Iran’s Bank Melli. The sanctions, under Executive Order 13382 (anti-proliferation), prevent U.S. citizens from participating in transactions with Future Bank and require the freezing of any U.S.-based bank assets. Energy market observers say that Bahrain energy firms might also be supplying gasoline to Iran.
No U.N. Security Council Resolution bars such sales, but a U.S. law signed on July 1, 2010—the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability, and Divestment Act of 2010 (CISADA, P.L. 111- 195)—provides for sanctions against foreign firms that sell more than $1 million worth of gasoline to Iran. Some energy firms in the Gulf, including in Kuwait, reportedly have become reticent to continue supplying gasoline to Iran because of the U.S. action, but Bahrain is not known to have publicly disavowed further gasoline sales to Iran.10
Qatar Territorial Disputes11
The United States cooperates closely with both Qatar and Bahrain, which is why the Bahrain- Qatar territorial dispute was closely watched by U.S. policymakers. The resolution of the dispute has partly removed these tensions as an issue for U.S. Gulf policy. Qatar, like Bahrain, is a GCC monarchy; however, their relations have been sometimes acrimonious because of territorial disputes with roots in the 18th century, when the ruling families of both countries controlled parts of the Arabian peninsula. Qatar-Bahrain relations have improved since an International Court of Justice ruled on March 16, 2001, on the disputes. The ICJ ruled in favor of Qatar on some of the issues, and in favor of Bahrain on others, but the central dispute—over the Hawar Islands—was decided in favor of Bahrain. Qatar expressed disappointment over the ruling but said it accepted it as binding, and the two have since muted mutual criticism and cooperated on major regional issues. The territorial disputes were referred to the ICJ by Qatar in 1991 after clashes in 1986 in which Qatar landed military personnel on a man-made reef (Fasht al-Dibal) that was in dispute, and took some Bahrainis prisoner. Saudi mediation in the 1986-1991 period proved fruitless. That reef was awarded to Qatar in the ICJ ruling. However, the ICJ ruled against Bahrain’s claim to the town of Zubara on the Qatari mainland, where some members of the Al Khalifa family were long buried. Two smaller islands, Janan and Hadd Janan, were ruled not part of the Hawar Islands group and were awarded to Qatar.
On the Arab-Israeli dispute, Bahrain has not been as significant a mediator or broker as have its larger neighbors in the Gulf or broader Middle East. Bahrain has not taken a leading role in recent efforts to reconcile Hamas and Fatah to rebuild Palestinian unity, for example. On the other hand, Bahrain is not inactive on the issue; on October 1, 2009, the foreign minister called for direct talks with Israel. In the previously cited December 3, 2010, joint press conference with the Foreign Minister, Secretary of State Clinton expressed appreciation for Bahrain’s support of Palestinian Authority leaders who are trying to build viable institutions and rule of law in the Palestinian territories.
Earlier, Bahrain participated in the 1990-1996 multilateral Arab-Israeli talks, and it hosted a session on the environment (October 1994). Bahrain did not follow Oman and Qatar in exchanging trade offices with Israel. In September 1994, all GCC states ceased enforcing secondary and tertiary boycotts of Israel while retaining the ban on direct trade (primary boycott). In conjunction with the U.S.-Bahrain FTA, Bahrain dropped the primary boycott and closed boycott-related offices in Bahrain.
Still, the Arab-Israeli dispute always has the potential to become a political issue within Bahrain.
Islamist hard-liners in Bahrain have accused the government of trying to “normalize” relations with Israel, citing the government’s sending a delegate to the November 27, 2007, summit on Middle East peace in Annapolis, the foreign minister’s meeting with Israeli officials at U.N. meetings in September 2007, and by proposing (in October 2008) a “regional organization” that would group Iran, Turkey, Israel, and the Arab states. That proposal has not been implemented to date. In late October 2009, the elected COR passed a bill making it a crime (punishable by up to five years in jail) for Bahrainis to travel to Israel or hold talks with Israelis. The bill, which has not proceeded to become law (concurrence by the upper house, and acceptance by the King), apparently was a reaction to a visit by Bahraini officials to Israel in July 2009. The visit was to obtain the release of five Bahrainis taken prisoner by Israel when it seized a ship bound with goods for Gaza, which is controlled by Hamas. In June 2010, Sunni and Shiite Islamists in Bahrain held a demonstration to denounced the Israeli seizure of a ship in a flotilla intended to run the Israeli blockade of the Hamas-run Gaza Strip.
Like the other Gulf states, Bahrain was affected by the international financial crisis of 2008-2009, but perhaps to a lesser extent than the wealthier states of Kuwait, UAE, and Saudi Arabia. Bahrain did not experience the construction and real estate “bubble” to the degree that this occurred in, for example, UAE.
Bahrain has the lowest oil and gas reserves of the Gulf monarchy states, estimated respectively at 210 million barrels of oil and 5.3 trillion cubic feet of gas. Some economic statistics are presented in Table 2. Without the ample oil or gas resources of its neighbors, Bahrain has diversified its economy by emphasizing banking and financial services (about 25.5% of GDP). At current rates of production (35,000 barrels per day of crude oil), Bahrain’s onshore oil reserves will be exhausted in 15 years, but Saudi Arabia shares equally with Bahrain the 300,000 barrels per day produced from the offshore Abu Safa field. The United States buys virtually no oil from Bahrain; the major U.S. import from it is aluminum. Aluminum and other manufacturing sectors in Bahrain account for the existence in Bahrain of a vibrant middle and working class among its citizens. However, these classes are largely composed of majority Shiite Muslims who are envious of the “ownership class” mostly of Sunni Muslims.
To encourage further reform and signal U.S. appreciation, the United States and Bahrain signed an FTA on September 14, 2004. Implementing legislation was signed January 11, 2006 (P.L. 109-169). In 2009, the United States exported $668 million worth of goods to Bahrain, and imported $463 million in goods from that country. In 2005, total bilateral trade was about $780 million, suggesting that trade has expanded significantly following the FTA.
Specialist in Middle Eastern Affairs
[email protected], 7-7612
This article is a shorter section from the longer Congressional Research Service February 18, 2011 report Bahrain: Reform, Security, and U.S. Policy (PDF)
5 Information in this section obtained from a variety of press reports, and the Defense Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA).
6 Unclassified information provided to CRS by the Department of Defense. Figures are as of June 30, 2010.
7 Appropriated in Division 1 of P.L. 110-161.
8 Details of the U.S.-Bahrain defense agreement are classified. Some provisions are discussed in Sami Hajjar, U.S. Military Presence in the Gulf: Challenges and Prospects (U.S. Army War College: Strategic Studies Institute), March 2002, p. 27.
9 Department of State. Transcript of Remarks by Secretary Clinton and Foreign Minister Al Khalifa. December 3, 2010.
10 CRS conversations with foreign diplomats, including some from the Gulf. July – September 2010.
11 See The Estimate. Dossier: The Bahrain-Qatar Border Dispute: The World Court Decision, Part 1 and Part 2. March 23, 2001 and April 6, 2001.