MANAMA // A vital US naval base in the Middle East is getting a multi-million-dollar upgrade, which will double the station's size and enable the US to better withstand the growing number of threats in the region's strategic waterways. Expansion work on the Naval Support Activity Bahrain base, which is home of the US Navy 5th Fleet Command, began yesterday with a ground-breaking ceremony, during which US officials emphasised the military, political and economic significance of the move towards ensuring regional peace and stability.
The US ambassador to Bahrain, Adam Ereli, said: "The US Navy's presence in the region for 60 years has allowed the countries of the Gulf the peace and stability they need to prosper. As threats grow, from wherever they may be, it is important that our presence remains constant. "What you see today is a commitment to staying in the region. Anybody who suggests that we are getting afraid or nervous or losing our resolve just has to take a look at what we are doing here today."
The upgrade, which is expected to be completed in four phases over five years, will cost $580 million (Dh2.1 billion). The 5th Fleet area of operation encompasses about 6.5 million square km of water, spanning the coastlines of 27 countries, including the Gulf, the Red Sea, the Gulf of Oman and parts of the Indian Ocean. The area includes three strategically vital chokepoints - the Strait of Hormuz, the Suez Canal, which links the Red Sea to the Mediterranean, and the Bab al Mandeb Strait at the southern tip of Yemen.
It is the US military's most engaged theatre of operation, with the US maritime coalition supporting missions in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as carrying out counter-terrorism and counter-piracy efforts. Iran's repeated threats to close the Strait of Hormuz, its continued maritime exercises in Gulf waters and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard's frequent testing of US warship reactions have also challenged the US in the area.
Tuesday's warning by Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, the Hizbollah leader, that his group would target ships heading in the direction of Israel in any future Lebanon-Israel war if Lebanon's water ways are besieged, may have added yet another threat to the list. Captain Enrique Sadsad, the 5th Fleet base commander, said in an interview: "Our naval forces and coalition partners are focused on executing our mission, keeping our forces and host nation secure, and are also actively engaged in partnerships and co-ordination with other Gulf allies to help ensure our mutual defence.
"The base continues to grow in terms of operational requirements to sustain ongoing operations around this region," Captain Sadsad said. "This expansion project will not only enhance our ability to support our tenant commands and their mission - whether that be logistics, aviation, theatre security, or surface operational support - but also provide the necessary infrastructure to support our service members and their families, including our civilian and contract employees."
Plans for expansion of the base had been in the pipeline since 2003 as operational requirements increased after the September 11 attacks, but it was not until January 2008 that a lease agreement for a part of Bahrain's recently decommissioned Mina Salman was reached between Manama and Washington. The 28-hectare area will be used to relocate US and coalition port operations from their current 1-hectare facility in the same port.
The first phase of the upgrade is set to be completed in the autumn of 2012 and consists of constructing a perimeter fence, port operations centre, administrative buildings and waterfront development to support navy and coalition ships. Later stages of the project will include the construction of barracks, a dining facility, recreation centre and a bridge over the road separating the base from the port to link the two sides.
The construction is also expected to benefit the local economy. Mr Ereli said: "The expansion represents a huge investment in Bahrain and has great economic benefits. In addition to the lease contract we presently have about 300 ships visiting port each year and that number will likely increase by 30 per cent. "A large part of the $580 million set aside for the project will benefit Bahraini companies. Twenty per cent of the construction cost, around $100 million, will be paid to Bahraini construction companies. Another $150 million will be used to buy construction material from Bahrain. We will also have thousands of Bahraini workers and consultants employed during the five-year long construction phase."
Mr Ereli said that such investments carried a political message of confidence in Bahrain and the role it plays. Hussain Jasim, a Bahraini MP with Al Wefaq Society, welcomed what he expects to be a boon to the country's economy. Already, he said, the base contributes at least $150m to the Bahraini economy each year. "They have directly contributed to the construction boom in Juffair area - where the [current] base is located - and I personally call that area 'little America' because of the US-franchised restaurants and coffee shops that line its street," he said.
"Every Bahraini dinar that is spent in the economy is worth four in circulation inside the economy so you imagine the impact [of the project]," he said. "Hotels, car rental services, restaurants all depend to a certain extent on the US presence." The US Navy presence in Bahrain dates back to the Second World War but it was not until 1971 that the navy leased part of the former British base to set up what is the 5th Fleet Command today.