Press TV broke some “interesting news” on Thursday, as anchor Saeed Pourreza remarked when he appeared to receive an on-air update.
Whether he proceeded to break The Times’s story or vice versa, Pourreza announced that the Obama administration is scouting a new home for America’s Fifth Fleet, currently stranded in Bahrain. The Australian would pick the story up and run, giving “Capital Hill” too much credit for debating the issue “within days of the protests breaking out.” No part of the U.S. government has demonstrated foresight in the Arab Spring.
A story like the Fifth Fleet, though, was too big not to automatically trigger Washington’s denial mechanism. Late night an anonymous State Department official told The Huffington Post, “We are aware of these reports, which do not reflect the views of either the departments of State or Defense.” Just so that everyone was clear, Fifth Fleet public affairs officer Commander Amy Derrick-Frost told Gulf News, “The speculation in the London Times article about Fifth Fleet leaving Bahrain is false.”
The two officials then voiced identical support for King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa: “Diplomatically, we regard Bahrain as an important partner, while the U.S. Navy has a long-standing relationship of more than 60 years with Bahrain.”
No one can deny this fact. Many Bahrainis happen to view their government’s close relationship with Washington as part of their problem. But with the State Department official stepping too far out on a limb - “the United States continues to support all of the ongoing efforts that are necessary to promote reconciliation among Bahrainis and to advance necessary reforms” - the U.S. Navy’s bluster quickly dissipates. No plans exist to move the Fifth Fleet for the moment, only because no feasible options lie on the Persian Gulf’s horizon.
One thing is certain: the Naval Support Activity Bahrain affords the most advantageous placement of the U.S. Navy’s forward presence, specifically against Iran. The Navy also maintains full control over NSA Bahrain, a Guantánamo Bay that Bahrain and Saudi Arabia’s governments actually welcome. No alternative of its kind exists; moving is a political and logistics nightmare because NSA Bahrain is the Fifth Fleet’s ideal base. Yet King Hamad’s regime has grown too shaky for the Pentagon to ignore entirely, reverberating a forceful denial in the opposite direction.
Two sites under consideration in the media - Qatar and the UAE - share pros and cons. Both states have experienced negligible unrest during the Arab Spring due to a combination of factors, including lower unemployment and poverty, and maintain extensive trade relations with America (a point of leverage for both sides). Each state also hosts U.S. personnel and logistics that could link up to their ports. Situated west of Doha, Al Udeid Air Base quarters the U.S. Air Forces Central Command (ACC) and several strike groups. Jebel Ali, the Middle East’s largest port, already refuels numerous U.S. Naval craft and has erected facilities to accommodate a supercarrier.
Neither port, however, is equipped for the Fifth Fleet’s total capacity, estimated between 30-40 ships and 16,000-30,000 personnel. Naval Forces Central Command lists its staff at 28,000.
Barring a complete meltdown in Bahrain and a reactive eviction, the Fifth Fleet won’t be moving until a personalized base can be established in the next 2-4 years. The practical considerations of relocating outweigh the existential threat that Bahrain’s monarchy finds itself under, bottlenecking a rapid solution. In case of emergency a patch-work strategy may split the Fleet between Doha and Dubai, while the U.S. Air Force would theoretically function as a stop-gap.
If worst comes to worst though, King Abdul Aziz Sea Port appears to be the most attractive alternative. Located right across the King Fahd Causeway, roughly 30 miles away in Ad Dammām, the Saudi port would make a natural home for the Fifth Fleet. Although the port may be insufficient to house the entire array of vessels, no state would be more accommodating that King Abdullah. His port could renew domestic unease in America and come with a hefty price, however the move makes sense logistically and geopolitically.
Once the dust cleared from Hosni Mubarak’s fall, Obama administration has eagerly adhered to Riyadh’s counter-revolution. As National Security Adviser Tom Donilon would tell you, America and Saudi Arabia share “fundamental, fundamental” interests.
For this reason discounting a move entirely is impossible. One of these shared interests happens to be Bahrain’s faltering “National Dialogue,” which both governments support in order to avert regime change. The move predictably backfired as King Hamad treated the dialogue as the political tool that it is. Unless he and his foreign strong-arms decide to hold a serious dialogue over Bahrain’s inequalities, his government will find itself confronted with a rising swell of opposition against the Sunni monarchy.
Trapped on the same island by the same problems, Washington and Riyadh don’t have many allies to turn to except each other.