Britain’s announcement that it is planning to build a £15 million naval base in the protest racked monarchy of Bahrain came as a surprise to many observers, not least as it would seem to be in contradiction to both the UK’s cuts in naval spending, and their professed support for human-rights and democracy in the region.
Bahrain has been at the centre of continuing protests since 2011, but unlike many of the region’s nations where uprisings against governments that were perceived as challenging the West’s interests have received much media attention and covert backing from the West, Bahrain’s democracy movement has all but been ignored despite having endured severe repression, including scores of deaths, allegations of torture and arbitrary detention by Bahraini security forces.
So the announcement of British Royal Navy plans to build a permanent military presence there has been met with dismay by opponents of the Bahrain regime and is considered as providing a major bolster to the Bahrain monarchy and as being a strong endorsement from Britain that they will continue to give support for whatever measures the regime takes to suppress the democracy movement. This would perhaps explain why the Bahrain regime is reportedly footing £13 million of the £15 million bill for its construction.
From its side, the UK government insists that it needs a permanent presence for its naval forces in the Persian Gulf region to combat piracy. However, the Royal Navy currently has mine-sweeping vessels based in Bahrain which are primarily aimed at countering Iran’s naval defences on the other side of the Persian Gulf. It is expected the new base will be able to host destroyers and the currently under-construction Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers. Many observers see this as a direct attempt to contain and challenge Iran and to provide a stable base for British backed insurgency operations in the region, most particularly in Iraq, Syria and, potentially, in Iran itself.
Bahraini opposition activist Nabeel Rajab reacted to the news by stating that the UK was “the only country that openly supported the dictatorship in Bahrain and clearly oppos[es] our struggle for democracy and human rights”. Nabeel continued, “Taking into consideration the silence of the UK, Bahrain paying that [is] an award to them and for that reason Bahraini people are upset as the information [is] coming out.”
The UK gave up maintaining a major naval presence in the Persian Gulf when it and France were forced into humiliating retreat over their Suez invasion, when they were militarily defeated by Egyptian forces under the leadership of President Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1953. Since then the British have relied upon a much reduced naval presence in the Persian Gulf, largely allowing the US to take the dominant role.
However, this news that the UK will be joining the US’s Fifth Fleet in having a permanent base in Bahrain would tend to confirm that the British do not consider themselves out of the game as a global naval power, and still intend to make their stamp on the region. The British invented the concept of “Gunboat diplomacy” at the height of their imperial rule in the 19th century, and it would seem they are keen to keep the tradition alive in a region where many see them as having played a destructive and divisive role for centuries.
For the British, securing their interests in the oil-rich region is of paramount importance in a time of economic crisis. The fall of the Morsi government in Egypt, and the failure by British and US backed terrorists to overthrow Assad in Syria combined with the continued stability of an increasingly assertive Iran, has left the West’s “Arab Spring” project looking badly stalled.
As Russian and Chinese influence and money continues to provide a strong alternative for trade and relations, the Western powers are feeling the need to ratchet up their direct presence in the region once again. With the US “pivot to Asia” taking military resources from Iraq and Afghanistan to be redeployed in an attempted “containment” of China, the UK military will be expected to fill some of the gap. The British have never forgotten their humiliation in the Persian Gulf at the hands of Egypt in 1953, nor more recently, when in 2004, and again in 2007, Iranian Revolutionary Guards detained British Special Forces Royal Marines and Royal Navy sailors after they entered Iranian waters.
The British will be hoping that a major permanent naval presence in the Persian Gulf will mean they can once again hold the whip hand in the region.