U.S. service members stationed in Bahrain are struggling to adjust to the new normal as the country enters the second year of its uprising.
- By Geoff Ziezulewicz<p> Geoff Ziezulewicz is a freelance writer living in Italy. He formerly covered the U.S. military and its wars for Stars and Stripes. Follow him on Twitter at @JournoGeoffZ. </p>
JUFFAIR, Bahrain – The U.S. naval base in Bahrain looks like any of the other fenced-in little Americas that denote an overseas military community.
Inside a mall complex known as the "Freedom Souq," a food court features Taco Bell and an A&W American Grill. The Navy Exchange — basically a Target for overseas military communities — sells American flat-screen TVs, Nike sneakers, Dawn dish soap, pleated Dockers and Right Guard deodorant. Like every other base, vendors hawk the kind of local tchotchkes found in any airport, everything from hookah pipes to carved wooden camels, belly dancing costumes, and genie lamps.
But despite all the reassuring touches of Americana, the Arab Spring often erupts just down the road. The confrontation between Bahrain’s Sunni ruling family and the predominantly Shiite protest movement seems, if anything, to be getting worse. The decision by Formula One authorities to go forward with the popular Grand Prix race on the island this weekend has sparked a renewed bout of protests against the decision — and despite the Formula One chief’s remarks that Bahrain is "quiet and peaceful," policemen were recently injured by homemade explosives thrown at them by protesters. Meanwhile, Bahraini security forces detained two Human Rights Watch officials on April 15 for observing a protest against the Grand Prix decision.
Some newly arrived sailors, civilians, and family members are nervous about being stationed in a far-flung locale like Bahrain, nestled in a region not known for its hospitality toward Americans. But when members of this 6,200-strong community pass the double layer of security at the gates of Naval Support Activity Bahrain and head out into "the economy," military-speak for a host nation, the comforts of home are not far away.
Hook your first left, past the taxi stand, and you are strolling along American Alley, a strip in the upscale Juffair neighborhood, a 10-minute drive east of Manama, that is replete with a Macaroni Grill, Starbucks, and Burger King.
"They get here and are a little frightened," one Navy wife told me. "Then they look and see there’s a Dairy Queen. It does help."
But these days, community members don’t go past the Mega Mart grocery store at the end of American Alley after 8 p.m. They are officially banned from doing so by Navy leadership.
Clashes are a regular part of the evenings, as Shia youth engage the Bahraini police a few blocks away. And while Americans stationed here might not witness the violence firsthand, a night’s battle is often felt. It’s not for nothing that the country has come to be called "The Kingdom of Tear Gas": Sailors working late on base, a family stopping at TCBY for dessert, or single guys heading to JJ’s Irish Bar or Club Buffalo are subject to the indiscriminate sting of the Bahraini police’s weapon of choice for crowd dispersal, delivered via big-barreled guns that pop canisters into the night sky, blazing orange before they hit the ground and engulf everything, spreading with the wind.
As the tiny island enters year two of its uprising, this is the new normal for Americans stationed in Bahrain: a slightly askew existence, with plenty of Western comforts, occasionally punctured by the tumult simmering around them.
The base here, headquarters of the Navy’s 5th Fleet, is the cornerstone of the U.S.-Bahrain relationship — a critical facility that spearheads the Navy’s power projection across the Persian Gulf as it attempts to curb the ambitions of Iran, whose port city of Bushehr — home to the country’s first nuclear power plant — sits roughly 190 miles away. The physical manifestation of America’s awkward courtship with the kingdom’s rulers, military life here generally means a series of inconveniences: heading inside if the tear gas wafts into your neighborhood, and sticking towels under the door to prevent it from seeping into homes. The Internet slows down when the largest clashes are underway. Drives are planned to avoid demonstrations, and trips to the mall sometimes mean passing burning tire piles.
Base and State Department officials do what they can, sending emails and text messages warning Americans about the latest protests to avoid. A typical message sent out last month by the Navy warns to avoid the Sharakkaan area from 2:30 p.m. to 8 p.m. due to a funeral procession.
"Spontaneous demonstrations may occur any time," a message from the base’s force protection officer reads. "Use caution as you drive and plan additional time to arrive at your destination. Always keep current With (sic) media coverage of local events and be aware of your surroundings. If you encounter a large public gather or demonstration, stay calm and depart the vicinity."
It also urges continued caution about traveling to the area west of American Alley and around the site of the now-demolished Pearl Roundabout. Politely show identification to officials, but never hand over an ID to someone not in uniform. If you come across any other demonstrations, "see something, say something!"
Primarily concerned with the latest tit-for-tat with Iran, Navy leadership conscientiously avoids saying anything controversial about the political unrest on the island. But the quality of the relationship between Bahrain and the Navy is something repeatedly parroted by the base’s public affairs officers.
"We have a longstanding relationship with the Kingdom of Bahrain and they are an important partner in the region," base spokeswoman Jennifer Stride wrote in an email when I requested an interview with the base commander. (Perhaps she was cutting and pasting from a template: "It is important to note that we have a long-standing relationship with Bahrain," 5th Fleet spokeswoman Lt. Rebecca Rebarich wrote in an email about a separate story earlier this year. "They are an important partner in the region.")
The U.S. Embassy in Manama did not respond to numerous requests for an interview. Capt. Colin S. Walsh, the base’s commanding officer, was unavailable for an interview due to "a scheduled regional exercise and extensive engagements with distinguished visitors," Stride said in an email.
Americans affiliated with the Navy in Bahrain are also prohibited from photographing or taking part in demonstrations, according to the base security emails and community members.
The knowledge of the average American military community member living in Bahrain about the political upheaval around them varies. Many are more than content to live in the bubble of normalcy — or something close to it — that the Navy provides them.
"The average housewife out and seeing things going on, if they don’t know the politics … it’s a bunch of thugs running around fighting the police," the Navy wife, who asked not to be identified because the command warns community members not to speak with the media, said. "When they’re affected, they complain about it. Not to sound cold, but they’re concerned with their family, their home, their school."
After arriving in Bahrain, her family settled in an expat compound near the Pearl Roundabout in a predominantly Shia neighborhood, where they bore witness to last year’s chaos. She recalls walking to the roundabout after the protests began on Feb. 14, 2011, and seeing a peacefully assembled sea of people. Soon after, the government crackdown started, the neighbors chanted from the rooftops all night long, and the gas seeped into their home for months on end, leaving them with burning faces.
One day during last year’s upheaval, her husband and a neighbor went for a walk to check out the roundabout. Suddenly, gunfire rang out. She tried to call her husband’s cell phone, but there was no service. Soon he came sprinting back to the compound, a wave of panicked protesters not far behind.
The family requested to be moved, but the command denied the request, saying they were not in danger because the protests were not directed at Americans.
U.S. officials would eventually warm up to the risks American personnel faced in Bahrain. At the height of last year’s unrest in March, right after Saudi-led military forces rolled onto the island to help the government restore order, the Defense Department enacted a voluntary evacuation plan for family members and non-essential civilian personnel.
The American Bahrain School, a Defense Department-run school for military kids, the scions of wealthy Bahrainis, and other international students, shut down at the same time, mainly due to transportation problems and what a State Department travel warning characterized as "sectarian groups patrolling areas throughout Bahrain and establishing unofficial vehicle checkpoints."
"We didn’t want a whole bunch of high-schoolers getting stuck somewhere," a Navy spokesman told me at the time.
Like other pillars of the 60-year old American military presence here, the school has close ties with the ruling Al Khalifa family. The crown prince is a graduate, and the school’s official Web page praises "the judicious leadership" of King Hamad Bin Isa al Khalifa, "his wise government," and his "steering of the country towards prosperity, glory and success."
Principal Douglas McEnery played down the uprising’s impact on the school, which is now open as normal.
"The only times it has impacted our operations at all was after hours," McEnery said. "The winds were blowing in an unfortunate direction to bring tear gas into our campus. We brought in all the students. That has only happened three times."
It’s anyone’s guess how Bahrain’s uprising will end. Anti-government protesters in the kingdom say there is no way they can turn back now — the rift between the two sides has only been widened by the case of Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, a prominent activist whose hunger strike recently entered its second month. The Khalifa family, rulers of the island since the 18th century, views any substantive democratic reform as an existential threat. The return of peace to this island seems, at this point, to be little more than a distant dream.
In the meantime, U.S. troops and their families will continue to report for duty in Bahrain, adjusting themselves to the new normal as best they can.
"I just tell them not to be frightened," the Navy wife said of the advice she gives to recent arrivals. "Either side is not out to get you in your car with your children. But you don’t want to get stuck in the middle of them."