Analysis: What’s behind the UK ‘return’ to the Middle East?

UK Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond and his Bahraini counterpart Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa sign an agreement allowing the Royal Navy to establish a permanent base in the Gulf state
UK Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond and his Bahraini counterpart Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa sign an agreement allowing the Royal Navy to establish a permanent base in the Gulf state @BahrainCPnews / Twitter

Britain is to open a new £15 million naval base in Bahrain, the country’s Foreign Office announced Friday, which will be the first permanent UK military presence in the Middle East in more than 40 years.


Under a deal signed with the Bahraini government, improvements will be made to the Gulf state’s Mina Salman Port, which is already used on an ad-hoc basis by four UK mine-hunter ships, creating a permanent forward operating base.

The base will “enable Britain to send more and larger ships to reinforce stability in the Gulf” said UK Defence Secretary Michael Fallon. “We will now be based again in the Gulf for the long term,” he said.

The move represents a potentially significant shift in British defence strategy.

The country has not had a permanent military base in the Middle East since it formally withdrew from the region in 1971, a long-term result of the Suez crisis of the 1950s where Britain was forced into a humiliating backdown in the face of international pressure.

The episode gave rise to the expression “east of Suez”, an evocative phrase in British politics to denote the country’s military presence, or lack thereof, in the Middle and Far East in the post-Empire years.

Britain’s return “east of Suez” may suggest to some a return to the country’s imperialistic ambitions of the past despite its decline as a global power.

But with its armed forces the smallest they have been in more than a century, the UK is less well equipped now to police an area as volatile as the Middle East than it was in the 1970s, which raises the question as to why the government has decided to head back there now.

Battling the Islamic State group?

There are, however, obvious reasons for Britain to establish a permanent Middle East military base, not least the security situation in Iraq and Syria and the rise in prominence of the Islamic State group.

Speaking to the Times in September this year, Sir Jeremy Greenstock, a former British ambassador to the United Nations, said deterring the Islamic State from expanding into the Gulf would be a major motivation for setting up a greater UK military presence in the region.

“It will also make it more difficult for some internal cell in Bahrain or UAE [United Arab Emirates] or wherever to think they can have a go at the local government if they see some highly trained and capable people standing alongside the government,” he said.

The UK has also been looking at installing an infantry battalion at al-Minhad in the UAE as well as a training post in Oman, according to Greenstock.

But, military experts believe, a return to a permanent British presence in the Middle East has been on the minds of UK defence strategists for some time, well before the rise of the IS group became a major concern for the global community.

“The UK Maritime Component Command has had a permanent headquarters in Bahrain since 2001 and work on a new UKMCC headquarters began in April 2014”, noted Christian Le Mière, an expert on naval forces and maritime security at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS).

The Bahrain base is therefore simply “the latest development in a wider shift to a more permanent footing in the Gulf in recent years”, Le Mière wrote in an article on the IISS website.

‘Highly politically motivated’

While such a footing will give undoubted strategic advances to Britain’s Middle East operations, the shift also has another aim, according to Peter Roberts, an expert on maritime power at the Royal United Services Institute.

With announcements like the one on Friday, Britain hopes to reassure its allies in the Gulf from whom Britain receives billions of pounds of investments as well as much of its energy supply by showing them it takes the region’s security seriously.

“The announcement today is highly politically motivated, designed to underpin the rhetoric over British resolve to remain in the Middle East,” he told FRANCE 24.

“It’s a message to its allies in the Gulf saying ‘we support you’, that we are hugely reliant on the Middle East both strategically and for resources such as energy.”

Roberts pointed out that the £15 million cost of the base is a relatively small figure and significantly less than the £25 million a year the US spends on catering services for military personnel at its Bahrain naval base.

Although Britain may not have had a permanent Middle East military base in recent years, that does not mean it has not been highly active in the region for some time.

There has been at least one British warship in the Gulf at all times since the 1970s, said Roberts, not to mention military personnel already stationed in Bahrain and the UAE and, until recently, the British military presence in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Above all, Britain’s so-called return “east of Suez” is not really a return at all. “In reality, Britain never really left,” Roberts said.

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