This Tiny Gulf Kingdom Holds The Key To America's Control Of The Mideast


Photo: Robert Johnson

The tiny monarchy of Bahrain is struggling to hold on during a time of unrest and constant regional tensions. Thankfully, they’ve got some help.Bahrain is home to America’s 5th Fleet, which extends a decisive presence through the region.

Last fall I was invited to take part in international mine clearing exercises in the Arabian Gulf.

It was an opportunity to step inside a place full of contradictions, from luxurious developments built with oil money — to the squalor of immigrant workers who built them — to cordoned-off military zones.

Bahrain looks calm, tranquil and hot at just after 5 a.m.

Ruled by Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, this small island monarchy is linked by bridge to Saudi Arabia (and in a few years to Qatar).

Bahrain has been vital to the U.S. presence in the region since World War II and is host to the U.S. 5th Fleet.

Though more progressive than its neighbours (women here may drive and dress as they wish) Bahrain has some human rights issues — as could be seen from my hotel window.

There's a migrant labour pool surviving on low wages in sub-standard housing. These laborers represent about half of Bahrain's population.

One human rights group says that dozens of migrant workers in Bahrain have died in recent years from fires due to poor housing with no safety measures.

There were no houses like that near the hotel where I stayed. The neighbourhood around the hotel is close to the U.S. Navy base and is filled with American troops.

Bahrainis live here as well. Burqa-clad women can be seen darting about, sweeping their porches. The palms are filled with singing birds.

Just a block away from the birds and the GIs is this nightclub, which pulses with music after dark. Bahrain is one of the few Gulf states where liquor is allowed.

Bahrain is in the midst of a massive construction boom.

The kingdom is literally growing as it pushes sand into the sea and builds on 're-claimed' earth.

Bahrain still gets most of its income from oil and gas, but it's building a financial sector, centered around the new World Trade centre.

The money is driving an impressive expansion that only becomes clear from the air.

But on the ground, this project looks only like piles of rocks and sand.

The new land is overlooked by this impatient skyline.

Bahrain is famous for its pearls. A couple of small boats anchored here before heading into the Gulf.

The importance of water can be seen everywhere. Temperatures can be so great at midday that workers are forced to clock out until it cools.

But those concerns seem far away on the nearby American base, which pulses with air-conditioning inside cool, dim tents.

The base, with all its odd little reminders of home, was my jumping-off point for a visit to the ships in the Gulf.

I caught a ride in this helicopter.

To this Navy ship.

It was just a quick stop before another ride back to base — hops like this are part of daily life for U.S. troops stationed here.

It's more than a little impressive. Reshaping the earth to every whim and fancy without concern for weather or cost.

The Navy helicopter made short work of the trip.

I shoved my hand out the window, snapping pictures blindly, under turbine wash that felt hot enough to melt the camera.

It was still early. The next stop was a museum to have lunch with the Information Affairs Authority.

The floor of the museum is a map of the kingdom.

Behind the museum were fishing boats on blocks and this statue of a Bahraini pearl diver.

On the way back to the hotel, we passed the extraordinary Grand Mosque.

The mosque is just moments from the hotel, and from there it's just a five-minute walk here. There's a street just like this outside every U.S. military base in the world.

America street, Little America — it's called different names in different places. Here it's a row of restaurants offering lonesome GIs a taste of home.

It's also where cabs await to ferry riders to the souq — the market in Manama's business district, which is called Bab Al Bahrain.

Inside the souq there is an entirely different feel — a kind of intensity — but not threatening in any way. Conversations are happening everywhere.

People aren't just talking — they're playing and laughing.

And sitting.

And cooking.

And begging.

And relaxing.

And hustling.

The souq is also home to occasional anti-government demonstrations that have been in the news the past couple years, but there were none while I was there.

The place was empty.

Not many shoppers here either.

The only protests came from a pearl dealer as we bartered over prices.

Local divers sell pearls directly to this dealer, who sells largely to American visitors.

Thousands of oysters were opened to find this modest cache of beautiful but misshapen pearls.

The city of Manama has been around since at least 1345, which is right about the time Europe faced the Black Death and lost more than half of its population.

The history of the city peels away in bits and pieces.

The present is always close at hand

But traditional stores are everywhere too.

The legacy of the Silk Road lives on in little stands

Right near the Angry Birds backpacks

There are memories of the British protectorate era too.

Nearby the future rises up

Looking out over the past.

Some things aren't hidden or brushed to the side

And some folks are a little bit bored

And they're not terribly pleased with the current state of affairs.

The future holds dramatic changes for this Gulf Kingdom.

Now check out the action on the water...

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