MANAMA, Bahrain -- As a liberty port, Manama cannot compete with the raunchiness of Manila or Bangkok, but the men and women of the U.S. Navy still regard it as an oasis in the heart of the Persian Gulf.
Filipino barmaids, to the blare of heavy-metal music, serve up Coors in cans -- nectar in a sheikdom sandwiched by Saudi Arabia and Iran.
"It would take a brave man to open a girlie bar," as one foreigner points out, but Bahrain has managed to carve out a spirit so cosmopolitan that a framed commendation in one nightspot begins "Thanks for the nights we can't remember."
So some dismay and apprehension have settled in here in the weeks since the United States abruptly ordered sailors on its vessels docking here to be denied the liberty that had become a custom. At the same time, a 7 p.m. curfew was imposed for all of the 1,000 land-based Navy personnel at the headquarters here of its 5th Fleet. The U.S. Embassy has recommended that even U.S. civilians steer clear of bars and restaurants, saying it has received information that a terrorist attack might be planned against U.S. military forces in Bahrain.
Now the bar stools and dance floors that offered solace for thousands of sailors every month are almost empty. Bahrain, a safe and welcoming harbor to the Navy for nearly 50 years, is no longer seen as immune from the kind of anti-American militancy that has preoccupied U.S. military planners in the Persian Gulf region since a bomb attack on a U.S. target in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, some 18 months ago. That attack was followed by another last June that killed 19 Americans.
The latest warning issued by the embassy here, dated April 23, reported that the embassy "continues to receive information about possible terrorist threats to the U.S. military in the region, including Bahrain." It urged all Americans to "exercise the strongest possible caution."
Other foreigners, including more than 5,000 Britons, have shrugged off the expressions of alarm, and many U.S. civilians say they have seen little reason to be concerned. The island also remains a haven for Saudis, Kuwaitis and others who are by far the largest share of tourists, flocking here every weekend to seek out the turquoise waters and relaxed atmosphere that makes Bahrain something akin to a Virginia Beach, even if the standard dress is white robes and black chadors.
Led by the emir, Sheik Isa bin Sulman al-Khalifa, who has been in power for 38 years, the ruling family of Bahrain has made little secret of its displeasure at the U.S. action. After sparring for more than two years against a campaign of scattered arson and small-scale bombings that has been waged by members of the Shiite Muslim majority, the emir and his family, who like most prominent landowners and businessmen here are Sunni, worry that a further sullying of Bahrain's image could hamper their efforts to attract tourism and foreign businesses as substitutes for a small and declining oil sector.
Bahrain is not only the smallest country in the Middle East; it is also the smallest oil producer, with production of about 40,000 barrels a day -- less than 1 percent of what is produced by Saudi Arabia. But for now, it remains dependent on the petroleum industry, earning additional revenue from an offshore oil field shared with Saudi Arabia and by refining of Saudi oil.
Until the beginning of April, as many as three Navy ships tied up in Manama every week, and there were few restrictions on where sailors could head in their off-hours.
But since it first issued public warnings in early April, the Navy has diverted vessels in need of liberty to the United Arab Emirates, where liberty beyond the Jebel Ali port there consists of organized outings in large escorted groups.
In the meantime, those aboard the handful of ships already at anchor in Bahrain or those that have visited the port since have mostly had to gaze from the bridge or the deck at Manama, where the raucousness of bars like the Hunter's Lodge and Tabasco Charlie's had become the stuff of Navy lore.
"The intent is to avoid large gatherings of Americans that would create an inviting target, given the current environment," a U.S. official here said.
Some 19 U.S. vessels are now in the shallow waters of the Persian Gulf, carrying about 12,000 sailors and airmen. That is slightly lower than the recent average but still reflects the substantial buildup of U.S. forces in the region that has been under way since the Persian Gulf war in 1991.
While some reports published after the warning was issued drew a link between the U.S. concerns and the domestic unrest here, U.S. officials have gone out of their way to suggest that the assumption was wrong.
Pub Date: 5/04/97