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The UK and the Gulf

When the UK’s chief political agent for the Gulf informed Bahrain’s hakim of the impending British withdrawal, his response was reportedly: “Why, who asked you to leave?” Such was the legacy of cooperation between London and the region that the speedy departure of British forces was a political shock. In the late 1960s, the UK government decided to withdraw from its commitments east of Suez due to financial and political considerations.
With Britain’s accession to the European Common Market imminent, the country’s future was deemed to be on the continent. Now, with Brexit on the horizon, a global Britain reengaging overseas is a very important point of policy.
In December 2016, the UK signed a maritime defense agreement with Bahrain, resulting in the establishment of the first permanent British base in the region for over 40 years. This highlighted a watershed moment as the UK seeks to navigate a significant strategic reorientation of its defense and security toward the Gulf. Though a return to the east of Suez is premature, it is not implausible.
As the US pivots toward the Pacific, there is a role for the UK to emphasize its position in the Middle East as it seeks to relieve America of its overseas security burdens, one of the most critical being the containment of Iranian ambitions.
The presence of Britain’s prime minister at the last Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Summit last December was of great interest to many. In a region that is at the nexus of several security complexes, strategic partnerships with military allies and old friends are favorable. In the context of a security vacuum allowing destabilizing forces to engage in the region’s affairs, widening the GCC’s security umbrella is a priority.

As the US pivots toward the Pacific, there is a role for the UK to emphasize its position in the Middle East as it seeks to relieve America of its overseas security burdens, one of the most critical being the containment of Iranian ambitions.

Zaid M. Belbagi

British forces would benefit from training areas, access to the Gulf and the Indian Ocean, and joint exercises with Gulf forces. It would send a clear message to regional powers that have sought to extend their reach in the wake of political upheaval in the Arab world. And refocusing on the Middle East would help the US act in the non-European theaters that most matter now to Washington, all of which are east of Suez.
In the context of Brexit, the UK must look outward and reinforce relationships with existing allies and interests in the Commonwealth. Such reorientation was difficult to align with the UK’s European responsibilities and its major European allies, but these considerations will feature less prominently going forward. As the leading military force in Europe and the second most potent in NATO, Britain’s armed forces now have an increasingly important role to play overseas.
A build-up of a UK strategic presence in the region need not be overwhelming. It is unlikely that the military intends to deploy a significant number of troops; rather, a solution would be to build facilities to rotate forces to and from the region, and to provide midway points to refuel and base troops on what remain key international waterways: Bab Al-Mandeb and Hormuz.
This coincides with the strategic limitations of the already-stretched UK armed forces. The Minhad air base in Dubai and the Juffair naval base in Bahrain, and their role in operations in Afghanistan and anti-piracy manoeuvers in the Indian Ocean, go some way to explaining what future UK operations in the region could look like.
Since the 1970s, the US has played an important role in the Middle East. Its military presence and political intervention has reflected an interest in maintaining its allies’ security. But following the recent experience of Iraq and Afghanistan, the US appetite for continuing such a role may well be waning.
It cannot comprehensively guarantee Middle East stability while its attention is focused on priorities that now lie in Asia (particularly the Far East) and the Pacific Rim. In circumstances not dissimilar to how the UK’s withdrawal in 1971 created a security vacuum that drew the US into the region, the cooling of America’s engagement seems to be drawing other powers in.
It would be of considerable economic benefit to the UK to be the leading Western player in the region. Britain’s political and security establishments engage with their equivalents in the Gulf with a tactfulness and understanding that has eluded counterparts in Washington. With an approach spearheaded by military support, the UK can coordinate its defense relationships in the region to be more effective.
All the Gulf states use the Typhoon fighter aircraft, for example, and appreciation and respect for British military training and tactical support remain considerable. In this area, the UK could seek to improve its relationships in the region as its troops withdraw from Germany in 2020. What has always distinguished the UK armed forces is their ability and experience in operating overseas; a diminished focus on Europe will allow it to redeploy elsewhere.
It is unclear whether Britain will seek to refocus on the Middle East. It may even be argued that regarding the Gulf, the UK never left but adapted its presence in light of political and economic changes at home and in the region. These ties, coupled with a need to keep the region stable and support the US in its global responsibilities, make an interesting case for increased cooperation in Gulf security.
As the UK leads the way in online security, together with its hard assets — reflected in a globally renowned infantry — and leading intelligence services, there is a case for these to be used to reassert relationships across the region at a time of great instability.

Zaid M. Belbagi is a political commentator. He also acts as an adviser to private clients between London and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).