Bahrain - Regional and National Security Considerations

Bahrain - Regional and National Security Considerations

After more than 150 years of British presence and protection, Bahrain gained full independence on August 15, 1971. The agreement granting independence contained no provision for British defense in an emergency, but it did provide for consultation. British authorities hoped that Bahrain, the most economically and socially advanced of the small gulf states, might take the lead in a federation similar to that of the UAE, but both Bahrain and Qatar opted instead for complete independence. Shaykh Isa ibn Salman Al Khalifa, leader of the Al Khalifa since the death of his father in 1961, became the newly independent country's first amir and continued as the hereditary ruler in 1993.

The constitution designates the amir supreme commander of the armed forces. In 1977 Isa ibn Salman chose his eldest son and heir apparent, Hamad ibn Isa Al Khalifa, to be minister of defense and commander in chief of the Bahrain Defense Force (BDF). In 1988 the former chief of staff, Major General Khalifa ibn Ahmad Al Khalifa, was named minister of defense, but Hamad ibn Isa retained the position of commander in chief in 1993. Other members of the Al Khalifa in prominent military positions include the new chief of staff, Brigadier General Abd Allah ibn Salman Al Khalifa, as well as the assistant chief of staff for operations, the chief of naval staff, and the commander of the air force. As in other gulf states, the ruling family keeps a tight hold on important positions in the national security structure.

The BDF is principally dedicated to the maintenance of internal security and the protection of the shores of the Bahrain archipelago. Nevertheless, with the rise of tensions in the Persian Gulf, the force has nearly tripled in size since 1984 and has added significantly to its inventory of modern armaments. Its total personnel strength in 1992 was about 6,150: army, 5,000; navy, 500; and air force, 650. The Bahraini army is organized into one brigade, consisting of two mechanized infantry battalions, one tank battalion, one special forces battalion, an armored car squadron, and two artillery and two mortar batteries. Its principal armored weapons are M-60A3 main battle tanks purchased from the United States in the late 1980s. Deliveries are awaited on an order for eighty United States M-113 APCs, supplementing a mixed accumulation of older armored vehicles. The army's artillery pieces consist of a few towed 105mm and 155mm howitzers. Its principal antitank weapon is the BGM-71 AI-TOW wire-guided missile.

Until 1979, when its first fast-attack craft were ordered from the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany), Bahrain's maritime force was a coast guard under the supervision of the minister of interior. As of 1992, the navy was equipped with two Lürssen sixty-two-meter corvettes. One Dauphin helicopter armed with an antiship missile has been delivered for use with the corvettes. The navy also has in its inventory four forty-five- meter Lürssen fast-attack craft and two thirty-eight-meter craft. The coast guard operates a variety of patrol craft, as well as three landing craft and a Hovercraft.

The Bahraini air force began operations in 1977 with a gradually expanding fleet of helicopters. Its first combat aircraft--United States F-5s--were acquired in 1986, followed in 1990 by more advanced F-16s. As of 1992, it had twelve F-5s and twelve F-16s. Eight Apache attack helicopters were ordered from the United States in 1991 to defend the archipelago and offshore oil platforms against incursions or terrorist action. I-Hawk SAMs are on order as the principal air defense weapon. After initially being denied shoulder-fired Stinger SAMs by congressional objections, Bahrain was allowed to purchase the weapons on a provisional basis and later to retain them permanently. The main air force base is adjacent to Bahrain International Airport on Al Muharraq. Another base developed for use in the Persian Gulf War is available near the southern tip of Bahrain; as of 1992, it was being used for servicing carrier-based United States aircraft.

Defense expenditures, which reached a peak of US$281 million in 1982, fell off sharply before gradually rising again to US$237 million in 1992. Because of its declining revenue from oil, the amirate has fewer resources available for defense than the more prosperous gulf states. The GCC had allotted Bahrain and Oman a special subsidy of US$1.8 billion between 1984 and 1994. Bahrain's share enabled it to purchase new fighter aircraft and to construct its new air base.

At the time of the British withdrawal in 1971, the United States leased port and docking facilities from the government of Bahrain for the United States Middle East Force. This was, in fact, an extension of a United States-British agreement, in effect since the late 1940s, enabling United States naval vessels to use facilities at Al Jufayr, a port section of the capital, Manama. The agreement was a sensitive one because none of the Arab states of the gulf wanted to appear to be submitting to any new form of colonialism or to be too closely associated with the United States, the main supporter of Israel. In 1977 the amir's government terminated the lease. The headquarters of the United States Middle East Force was compelled to move aboard one of the three ships that constituted the force. Otherwise, little changed as a result of the termination of the lease. United States ships- -with the aid of a support unit manned by about sixty-five United States naval personnel--were still permitted to use Bahraini port facilities for naval operations in the gulf to ensure the availability of fuel, communications, and supplies. During the Iran-Iraq War, when attacks on gulf shipping threatened Bahrain's oil refining and tanker servicing operations, United States personnel and military cargoes were permitted to transit the region via Bahrain International Airport. Large barges in Bahraini waters were used as bases for United States attack helicopters, radar, and air defense weapons. In October 1991, Bahrain signed a defense cooperation agreement with the United States similar to that previously concluded between the United States and Kuwait. The agreement provided for port access, equipment storage, and joint exercises.

Persian Gulf War

Bahrain played a limited but active role in the gulf war. Bahraini ground forces were among the 3,000 Peninsula Shield force of the GCC (exclusive of Saudi Arabian and Kuwaiti troops) that were assigned to a support role during Operation Desert Storm as part of Joint Forces Command East. Bahrain was the primary coalition naval base and was the point of origin for coalition air operations against Iraqi targets. Bahraini pilots joined other members of the coalition in flying strikes into Iraq. Three Scud missiles were aimed at Bahrain during the war. Only one landed in the country, and it did not hit a target area. There were no Bahraini combat deaths in the war.

Internal Security

The Bahraini national police force was believed by most sources to number about 2,000 in 1992. In addition to the usual police functions, the mission of the force is to prevent sectarian violence and terrorist actions. Bahrain has a high proportion of native Shia, possibly 65 to 70 percent of the population. Iran tried to fuel existing resentment over the inferior place of Shia in the social and economic structure. The government sought to moderate the socioreligious cleavage by appointing Shia to a number of cabinet posts and senior civil service posts, although generally not in security-related positions. A failed coup d'état against the Al Khalifa in 1981 resulted in the expulsion or trial of many Shia dissidents; Iran had armed and trained most of those convicted. A number of persons were arrested in 1987 in another plot linked to Iran. In 1989 twenty-two persons were sentenced to prison by the Supreme Court of Appeal, sitting as the Security Court, for plotting to overthrow the government; no claim was made of Iranian involvement.

Two clandestine political groups with ties to Iran are active in Bahrain. The Islamic Front for the Liberation of Bahrain, which was responsible for the 1981 coup attempt, consists of militant Shia calling for violent revolution. The Islamic Call Party, which also has ties to Iran, is more moderate, calling for social and economic reforms. Two secular leftist groups with ties to Arab regimes and Arab nationalist organizations are the Popular Front for the Liberation of Bahrain and the National Front for the Liberation of Bahrain. Their influence appeared to be on the decline as of early 1993. The agencies of the Ministry of Interior, the police force, and the Security and Intelligence Service (SIS) maintain strict control over political activity. It is thought that their operations are extensive and highly effective. Detention and arrest can result from actions construed as antiregime activity, such as membership in illegal organizations, antigovernment demonstrations, possession or circulation of antiregime writings, or preaching sermons of a radical or extreme Islamist tone. The Department of State reported some loosening of controls in 1991 over actions previously regarded as subversive, reflecting the government's assessment that domestic and foreign threats to its security had receded.

Under the State Security Act of 1974, persons can be detained for up to three years, with a right of appeal after a period of three months and thereafter every six months. Arrested persons tried in ordinary criminal courts are provided the usual guarantees, such as public trials, the right to counsel (including legal aid if needed), and the right of appeal. Prisoners charged with security offenses are tried directly by the Supreme Court of Appeal, sitting as the Security Court. The procedural guarantees of the penal code do not apply: proceedings are in secret, and there is no right of judicial appeal, although cases can be referred to the amir for clemency.

According to Department of State human rights studies, there have been credible reports that the SIS engages in torture and mistreatment of detainees. Convictions in some cases have been based only on confessions that allegedly have been extracted by torture. There were, however, no confirmed cases of torture in 1991. The independent human rights group Amnesty International claimed that as of 1992 about seventy political prisoners, many with ties to banned Islamic groups, were serving sentences after unfair trials. Between 220 and 270 people were held in Bahraini jails in 1992. Of these, fewer than 100 were thought to be serving sentences for security offenses.

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