Britain in Bahrain: eyes wide shut

 A new naval base in the Gulf reveals both the flaws in Britain's strategic thinking and the limits of its military capacity.

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
11 December 2014

The British government announced on 6 December 2014 that it was expanding its use of port facilities at Mina Salman in Bahrain into a full naval base. The news was greeted by protests from the Shi’a majority in the Gulf kingdom; many called for the removal of the United Kingdom's ambassador, Iain Lindsay.

A potent argument now circulating is that the Sunni-dominated government is paying most of the cost of the new base as a reward for Britain’s turning a blind eye to human-rights abuses in Bahrain - especially since protests erupted there in the early months of the "Arab spring". Bahrain Watch and other human-rights groups have long criticised the government in Manama, but they have had little impact on British government policy.

The UK base will not be large in comparison to the substantial United States naval headquarters for its fifth fleet, just up the coast. But is still significant, as the first permanent presence "east of Suez" since the Britain withdrew from the region in 1971. In its own way, the symbolism is considerable, even though such military commitments overseas are now out of line with domestic opinion.

The Financial Times reports that: "The base, which is planned to open in 2016, will include accommodation for crews and facilities to support and resupply vessels, as well as support for the long-term deployment of frigates and destroyers” (see Elizabeth Dickinson, "Bahrain naval base will give UK stronger Gulf presence", Financial Times, 7 December 2014).

The Royal Navy has deployed small minesweepers out of Bahrain for some years. But when destroyers and other larger vessels use Mina Salman, their crew sleep on board and there are few naval facilities for the larger ships ashore. With a full-scale naval base, such warships will be able to deploy regularly from the site.

Mina Salman will even be used by the 70,000-ton Queen Elizabeth aircraft-carrier. This vessel's ability to roam the seas with aircraft on board will take the UK right back to the 1960s, when the navy had fleet-carriers operating in the Indian Ocean and western Pacific.

A two-ship navy

London's official line is that the base will enable the UK to contribute to regional security at a time when it is threatened by a variety of forces, including the Islamic State and Iranian ambitions. The current overall uncertainties, runs the view, require “mature” states such as Britain to help maintain stability. A further advantage will be improved access to the enormously lucrative arms market in the Gulf states, which easily trumps concerns over human rights. An upgraded UK military presence at a time when Saudi Arabia and the local emirates fear increased Iranian influence in the region, especially in Iraq, offers potential benefits for political and business elites on both sides.

The justification for the base on the British side avoids any mention of the decline of North Sea oil production, and the UK's probable increasing dependence on Gulf oil, suggesting a touch of smoke-and-mirrors about its narrative. There is also litle effort to address the disconnect with the majority view that opposes military involvement overseas, especially the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq (though this may be combined with support for the armed forces, especially soldiers). The prevailing opinion is that British defence policy should be rooted in the defence of the country rather than major overseas operations, which contrasts markedly with that of the defence establishment. The latter believes that Britain must regain a global role as a leading state, not least through maintaining a capability for "power projection".

A SWISH report published in October 2014 analysed current British naval policy, pointing out that a large proportion of the navy’s entire force was on the way to having two huge aircraft-carriers, the largest warships ever built for the Royal Navy, together with new submarines for the Trident nuclear force (see also "In defence of greatness: Britain's carrier saga", 12 May 2012). This is an enormous commitment, especially in the context of the defence budget as whole. In fact, there is no guarantee that both of the carriers will be deployed; but even if they are, the navy’s role will essentially boil down to an ability to have one aircraft-carrier and one ballistic-missile submarine readily deployable at any one time.

Neither missile submarine nor carrier operates on its own. The submarine is backed up by what is termed “deterrence support”, which includes nuclear-powered attack-submarines and back-up from surface warships (“skimmers” in submarine parlance). The aircraft-carrier will operate at the centre of a substantial task-group that includes one or two destroyers or frigates, an attack-submarine, and a support-tanker and supplies ship. To have an escort such as a destroyer or a frigate deployed east of Suez requires three ships: one on station, one either sailing to or from the deployment area, and one in repair or replenishment (see "Britain's defence: all at sea", 12 July 2006)

Overall, the new base in the Gulf is part of a transformation of the Royal Navy into what is essentially a two-ship navy with not much else available for other duties. This seems not to matter if Britain can at least give an impression of being a major naval power, whatever the reality behind the move.

A gift to enemies

A long-serving ministry of defence civil servant, whose early had coincided with the days of HMS Eagle and the other fleet-carriers, once remarked that the post-1945 function of Britain’s aircraft-carriers was essentially to have a deck large enough for the band of the Royal Marines to be able to beat the retreat at sunset in a tropical port, watched by the officers’ wives and local dignitaries drinking their Pimm's (suitably enhanced with local tropical fruits). People really had to understand this, he said.

It may have been a cynical and condescending view, but as so often with civil-service observations it had an element of truth. Even now, elements of the British establishment still hanker after the days of empire - and there are traces of this longing in the new base in the Gulf (see "Britain in the Middle East: We're back", Economist, 13 December 2014).  

The much bigger issue, though, is that the Bahrain initiative puts the UK much more centrally into conflict in the Middle East. In London the base may be regarded as a positive move in support of British interests, especially as the United States pivots towards the Asia-Pacific region; but in much of the region it will be seen as yet one more example of western interference.

There will, in short, be a striking coalescence of views between enemies. Extreme Sunni Islamist groups such as the Islamic State will portray Mina Salman as evidence of British support for unacceptable elitist Sunni leaderships; Iran will see it as offering support to the Bahraini royal family as it suppresses the marginalised Shi’a majority. To be able to antagonise Raqqa and Tehran at the same time is really quite an achievement. The British quest to recapture some degree of status, if not a sense of greatness, risks a heavy price. 

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