Britain in Bahrain: hopes and fears

A naval-base agreement between two royal states suits both sides. But money, along with security a big part of the deal, could also undermine it.

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
31 December 2014

When the United Kingdom government announced on 6 December 2014 an agreement to establish a permanent naval base at Mina Salman in Bahrain, it was widely noted that this represented a return to Britain's "east of Suez" posture of the colonial era (which in formal terms had ended by 1971).

True, the Royal Navy had maintained a presence in the Gulf in recent years, including some facilities in Bahrain for minesweepers. But the new base is intended to be capable of hosting Britain’s new Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft-carriers and their supporting warships, which makes the upgrade more than symbolic. Britain itself will meet the operational costs of the new base, though the construction work itself is the Bahraini government's responsibility.

An earlier column in this series identified the political dimension of the base decision:

“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” (see "Britain in Bahrain: eyes wide shut", 11 December 2014).

That may well be the case; after all, Britain’s lack of criticism of the Bahraini royal family has been a long-term feature of its posture in the Middle East. In the wake of the radical changes in Tunisia and Egypt in early 2011, a month-long demonstration from Bahrain’s majority Shi’a community against the autocracy of the Sunni royal family was forcefully ended, with at least eighty-nine people killed. Many hundreds have since been arrested and tried. 

Both the clampdown and opposition to it continues. In recent days, the head of the banned Al-Wefaq opposition movement, Sheikh Ali Salman, was arrested and police subsequently used teargas and birdshot to disperse protesting crowds (see “Protests in Bahrain After Arrest of Opposition Leader”, Agence France-Presse, 29 December 2014).

In this context, Britain's opportunity to gain a base in the region paid for by Bahrain seems to have clear political, human-rights and diplomatic aspects, with London's attitude to the Bahraini royal family to the fore. It is plausible too, though, to see more mercenary elements at work, most notably the prospect of a welcome new arms deal.

A diplomatic dance

The background to this commercial exchange is the long-term plan for the Royal Bahrain Air Force to replace some of its ageing aircraft, specifically the Northrop F-5E and F-5F Tiger interceptors. Britain has long lobbied to sell BAE Systems' Typhoons to Bahrain, but some sectors in Bahrain have shown more interest in the French Dassault Rafale or advanced variants of three American planes - the F/A18E/F, the F-15E, and the F-16. 

In mid-2013, Britain's prime minister David Cameron pursued the possible sale with a trip to the region, which was followed by Bahrain's monarch, King Hamad Bin Isa Al Khalifa, visiting London. The Daily Telegraph reported at the time:

“The proposed deal with the Gulf monarchy rocked by protests in 2011 is thought to be worth more than £1 billion and is part of a concerted effort by Gulf countries to strengthen military ties with Britain. ..The highly political deal was one of the main agenda items in a Downing Street meeting between David Cameron and King Hamad Bin Isa Al Khalifa, earlier this week“ (see Ben Farmer, "Britain to sell Typhoon jets to Bahrain, despite human rights record", Telegraph, 9 August 2013)

Nothing came of that effort, but there are strong indications that the new basing deal will be the clincher. One of the reasons is that Bahrain is particularly keen to have a much heavier British involvement in ensuring the security of the kingdom. The United States already has a much larger base for its US navy’s fifth fleet right next door to the planned new British facility; but Bahrain's royal family - aware of its and the region's insecurities, not least continuing protests from the Shi’a majority, an uncomfortable situation with Shi’a Iran so close across the Gulf - is keen to have more than one protector.

The usually well-informed US journal Defense News reports that a Typhoon deal is now very much on the cards. The journal quotes Douglas Barrier, senior air analyst at London’s International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS):

“The mood music created by the naval base agreement can only be of benefit to defense industrial relations between the two sides. This closer strategic tie between the two governments provides a great opportunity for defense collaboration, including possible defense equipment sales” (see Andrew Chuter, “UK-Bahrain Base Deal Could Lead to Typhoon Sales”, Defense News, 15 December 2014).

Furthermore, prospects go well beyond the potential Typhoon sale. Defense News cites an unnamed UK industry executive:

“The potential relationship could provide lots of opportunities for partnership which are not just confined to Typhoon and not just confined to defense exports. There is the possibility of a much wider engagement and there have been lots of discussions going on between the two armed forces.”

The emergence of such commercial opportunities makes it most unlikely that the British government will do much to criticise the Bahraini authorities even if their repression of the Shi’a majority continues. 

This does not mean that all is set for the UK to make serious money, however. Bahrain's government accrues over 85% of its revenues from oil-and-gas sales. The plunging energy prices of recent months is an entirely new factor that could yet affect imports of military equipment. Even after all Britain’s efforts, and the persistent avoidance of public reproach of the Bahrain government, the whole endeavour could still come to nothing.

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