'East of Suez' revisited

Mina Salman in Bahrain, which is to become a "permanent" British naval base. Photograph: Royal Navy

In Britain, the phrase "east of Suez" is replete with imperial echoes, including the once-popular poetry of Rudyard Kipling:

Ship me somewheres east of Suez, 
where the best is like the worst,
Where there aren't no Ten Commandments 
an' a man can raise a thirst

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Britain's military withdrawal "east of Suez" – primarily from Malaysia, Singapore and the Gulf – formally drew a line under our imperial past.

So the announcement last Friday that Britain is to establish a permanent "east of Suez" base in Bahrain – the first in 43 years – is a significant step in unpicking a long-standing policy. But it's a policy that successive British governments have been quietly (some would say surreptitiously) unpicking for some time. 

Where several of the Arab Gulf states are concerned, it's even questionable whether the British ever really left. According to the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) – a think tank with strong military connections – the British presence endured, despite the official withdrawal, in "a series of ad-hoc initiatives, arrangements and developments".

Frank Gardner describes some of these in an article for the BBC website:

"In Saudi Arabia, where western military forces are no longer based, pilots on secondment from the RAF are providing continuity training on Typhoon jets for the Saudi Royal Air Force, part of a massive UK-Saudi defence deal.

"In Oman, which in 2001 hosted the largest British overseas military exercise in recent history, the defence relationship is so close that a British two-star Major General is stationed permanently in the capital Muscat, to oversee the relationship.

"In Qatar, the first course of a British-run staff college is due to begin this September and Kuwait has just chosen the UK to help run its own equivalent of the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst.

"Much of this is the work of Lt Gen Simon Mayall, Britain's defence senior adviser to the Middle East, appointed in 2011."

What the British government is now attempting to do, RUSI said in a report last year, is to forge these ad-hoc (and in theory temporary) arrangements into "a more coherent strategy" – a strategy which "packages together military deployments, defence sales, comprehensive bilateral engagements and wider issues concerning the UK's place in international affairs – with particular reference to the continued advancement of the 'special relationship' with the US".

The latest agreement with Bahrain seems to be part of constructing this "more coherent strategy". Britain already has naval facilities there but they are to be expanded (apparently at Bahrain's expense) and, crucially, this is no longer an ad-hoc arrangement: the British base is now described as "permanent".

The emerging strategy is partly being shaped by a carve-up of military responsibilities between Britain and the United States, with Britain expected to assumed a bigger role in the Gulf, allowing the US to focuse more on the Pacific.

Apart from that, though, there are three key elements: military, economic and political – and all three are problematic.

Military risks

The military aim, as set out in 2012 by General Sir David Richards (Chief of Defence Staff at the time) is "to spend more time" reassuring friends and deterring enemies in the Middle East.

While that might not sound unreasonable in theory, providing reassurance carries the risk of Britain being drawn into conflicts which are not of its choosing. Frank Gardner adds:

"There is also the risk that, somewhere down the line, there will come a sharp difference in policy and, in a worst-case scenario, that the UK may even be prevented by host governments from using the very bases and agreements in which it is currently investing so much."

This actually happened to the US in 2003, when a change of attitude by Saudi Arabia forced it to pull out of the huge Prince Sultan Air Base and move to Qatar.

Economic risks

There's no doubt that military cooperation with these countries can also boost Britain's arms sales. "It is of considerable economic benefit to the UK to be the leading European – and, indeed, western – player in the Gulf," the RUSI report noted.

Apart from the ethical questions that raises, it is also not without risks. High-technology weaponry has long delivery times which add to the uncertainties. One recent example is the $4bn order from Oman for warplanes. Deliveries are not scheduled to start until 2017 and no one can be sure that Sultan Qaboos, the ailing tyrant who seized the Omani throne with British help 44 years ago, will be there to receive them – or who may eventually end up using them.

Political risks

Looming large over all of this, however, are a series of political risks which ought to give pause for more thought. The RUSI report commented:

"By enhancing the UK’s relationships with the states of the southern Gulf, the UK is committing to the security and longevity of the Arab Gulf states – sheikhdoms which display only limited elements of democratisation ...

"The UK will also find itself very much on the fault line of searing sectarianism, between the Sunni and Shia worlds of Islam, that is increasingly defining the geopolitical landscape of Gulf and Middle Eastern security. 

"With Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and (to a lesser extent) Kuwait all contending with significant sectarian challenges to their internal security, and with Iran and Saudi Arabia engaged in what is so far a sectarian cold war in which the temperature could quite easily rise, the unintended consequences and outcomes of the UK’s strategic embrace of Arab Gulf states should not be underestimated."

Whatever the military benefits of having forward bases in the Gulf, politically it amounts to a show of support for regimes that are both repressive and anachronistic. Again, the consequences of that for Britain's reputation should not be underestimated.

Nor is it prudent to make long-term arrangements with any of them – simply because in the current regional turmoil we don't know how long they will survive.