July 26, 2011:
The United States is quietly looking for another country, on the west coast of the Persian Gulf, to host an American naval base. This is because months of political unrest in Bahrain has put the American base there in danger. So the U.S. Navy is looking at the possibility, and cost, of moving the Bahrain base to Dubai or Qatar. The navy is not happy about making the move, as it would be expensive and disruptive. But if the unrest in Bahrain continues, and escalates, there may be no choice.
Over the last few years, the U.S. has been expanding its naval base in Bahrain. The navy has taken over the Mina Salman port, which transferred all commercial operations to the new Khalifa bin Salman port. The navy has leased 28 hectares (70 acres) of waterfront space at Mina Salman. At the capital, the navy has an .4 hectare (one acre) area at the port there, and 17 hectares (42 acres) at a nearby base. The new port is large enough to berth the largest U.S. ships (the Nimitz class carriers.) The port currently supports over a dozen American warships operating in the area.
Thus the U.S. Navy has turned a minor naval station in the Persian Gulf, into one of its most crucial bases for the war on terrorism. The U.S. moved into Bahrain in 1973, when the British gave it up. The Bahrainis, like most of their Arab neighbors, like to have some friendly Western power in residence. This provides some insurance against Saudi Arabia to the west, and Iran to the east.
Before 1918, the British presence helped keep the Ottoman (Turkish) Empire off their backs as well. All the Bahrainis ask is that the foreign troops be quiet, and discreet. Until 2002, the Bahraini base was just a place where U.S. warships could tie up for repairs, or recreation for the crews. About 3,600 American military personnel were stationed there. There was an airbase for navy and air force transports and warplanes. The Bahrainis denied much of this activity, so as to avoid getting pilloried by other Arab states. But Bahrain is a small place (a 655 square kilometer island about 20 kilometers off the Saudi coast, with a population of about 1.1 million), and it's difficult for things like warships and warplanes to go unnoticed.
In the last eight years, several hundred million dollars has gone into building more permanent facilities. The trailers and other "temporary structures" were replaced by more permanent buildings and facilities. This included a new pier, just for military ships. There is a shopping center just for the military, and a lot of recreational facilities for the troops. Until 2004, some troops could bring their families. But now it's all military, and the brass try to keep everyone happy on base. It's a one year tour for most, but Bahrain is pretty popular. Living conditions are good, and the local Bahrainis are pretty mellow and friendly by Middle Eastern standards, at least most of the time.