“Today, as we face multiple global challenges and an increasingly uncertain and dangerous world, you are vital to protecting our nation’s interest, and provide a clear demonstration of the UK’s enduring security commitment to the Gulf.”

UK Prime Minister Theresa May was addressing Royal Navy officers aboard the flagship HMS Ocean stationed in Bahrain’s Khalifa bin Salman Port, shortly before attending December’s Gulf Cooperation Council meeting taking place in the kingdom. Having assumed command from the Australian Navy in April, the UK is currently leading the Combined Task Force (CTF 150), part of the Combined Maritime Forces multinational partnership that has included contributions from as far afield as Denmark, Canada and Pakistan.

May’s presence, and that of Royal Navy officers in Bahrain, is also significant in light of recent moves by the MoD towards establishing a permanent naval base ‘east of Suez’ for the first time in four and a half decades.

That phrase, redolent as it may be of the UK’s colonial past, speaks to a very specific period within UK military history, taking in not only withdrawal from the Gulf but also from South-East Asia.

With the desire of Harold Wilson’s 1966 government to reduce defence spending, a decision to withdraw the majority of British troops from Singapore and Malaysia by 1975 was announced in July 1967. By January the following year, with the mounting pressures of a devalued pound, that deadline was brought forward to the end of 1971, and an intention to withdraw from the Persian Gulf within the same time frame was also declared.

Global role

Whatever the political motivation – and finance was by no means the sole concern – these decisions flew in the face of an assertion by Wilson a little over three years earlier, soon after becoming prime minister for the first time, that whatever cost-cutting measures might be taken: “We cannot afford to relinquish our world role – our role, which, for shorthand purposes, is sometimes called our ‘east of Suez’ role.”

Today, with arguably a budget no less strained and a global political scene no less complex, the MoD is gearing up to resume a permanent presence in the Gulf.

As work began in November 2015 to construct a support facility at Mina Salman Port in Bahrain, then UK Defence Secretary Philip Hammond consciously referenced the familiar phrase, saying: “The presence of the Royal Navy in Bahrain is guaranteed into the future, ensuring Britain’s sustained presence east of Suez.”

In May’s recent speech, too, there were echoes of Wilson’s notion of a world role, this time with the added implication of Brexit, as she continued: “As Britain steps up to forge a new, positive, confident role for our country on the global stage, the Royal Navy will be an important part of our vision, pursuing our objectives of security on land and at sea, and helping to ensure the free flow of international trade.”

The UK’s increasing commitment to the region militarily is characterised by two key agreements. First is the development of the above-mentioned UK Mina Salman Support Facility (UK MSSF) in Bahrain, in collaboration with the King of Bahrain. Expected to be fully operational by mid-2017, the site will provide the Royal Navy with a permanent port of call in Bahrain, ending its previous dependence on berths in the US Navy’s large Bahraini facility.

Second is an agreement signed in March 2016 between the Oman Drydock Company and British defence firm Babcock International to develop the port of Duqm. This will include the provision of Omani government berths, some of which may be loaned to the UK. Further Omani-British cooperation was also indicated by an MOU signed between UK Defence Secretary Michael Fallon and the Omani Government in May 2016, with collaboration set to include joint military training.

Speaking to Defence & Security Systems International, an MoD spokesman (who cannot be named owing to the sensitivity of current operations) emphasises the importance of strengthening the UK’s naval footprint in the region at this time.

“Stability in the Middle East is vital to UK national security,” he says “Conflicts in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere pose extant threats both to the region and to the UK.

“Britain has significant and longstanding close relations with a number of states in the region and this is reflected in a strong history of intelligence and security cooperation, working to tackle terrorism, drugs trafficking, money laundering and piracy in the Indian Ocean.”

The developments build upon a “40-year track record of maritime Gulf activity”, he emphasises.

Difficult berth

Whether Oman or Bahrain will emerge as more strategically significant to the UK’s presence in the region remains to be seen.

One factor that could stand in Oman’s favour is the news that emerged in January 2016 that the Bahraini support facility will not allow the UK’s new Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers to berth directly alongside it, due to what the armed forces minister at the time referred to as “draught constraints”.

This, a Royal Navy spokesperson asserts, will not affect plans to use the UK MSSF, because it is able to support the naval platforms most regularly deployed to the region, including mine countermeasure vessels (MCMVs), T23 frigates and T45 destroyer escorts, as well as the larger RFA Bay class that support UK and coalition assets.

In March, it was reported that the MoD was investigating the option of establishing a permanent ‘land training hub’ in Oman – an option still being explored, according to the MoD spokesman.

“The establishment of a permanent training base in Oman would enable British troops to train in a harsh desert environment alongside Omani forces,” he says. “This year, we plan to deploy short-term training teams to Oman, each playing a key role in developing Omani troop core skills such as crisis management, instructing medical teams in combat response and teaching engineers how to use vital equipment. This complements a comprehensive programme of mutually beneficial exercises that will focus on building UK and Omani capacity and interoperability in areas such as sea mine clearance and mountain operations.”

Of Duqm, he emphasises that this is an Omani rather than Royal Navy project, and a civilian one at that. A completion date cannot yet be provided, but, he says: “The UK makes some use of the port at present and anticipates this continuing in the future – including, potentially but not exclusively, use of ‘government berths’.”

Preparations also include the assignment of a naval liaison officer to Duqm for an initial period of six to nine months (from late 2016), and further details will be fleshed out as the training hub plans mature.

In fact, recent joint training has included Bahraini soldiers participating in an exercise at the British Army’s Infantry Battle School in Wales, in May, alongside troops from Jordan, Lebanon and Nigeria. Such activity plays into a strategy of building up resilience in the region, the MoD spokesman says.

“Resilience is at the heart of regional stability in the Gulf and the development of capable, interoperable and well-led Gulf States Armed Forces contributes significantly to that resilience,” he says. “Joint training and common equipment are two of the foundations on which a resilient coalition or partnership are built; hence, given the increasing threats to stability in the Gulf, it is in the UK national interest to broaden our existing programme of defence engagement there.

Here be pirates

Activities the Royal Navy will and does engage in within the region include operations to counter the piracy that affects the Gulf of Aden, Indian Ocean and Horn of Africa, helping to deter and disrupt attacks, and make it harder for criminals to operate in these waters. Developing mine-hunting expertise is another focus.

“Mines are cheap, easy to use and have the potential to close important waterways,” the MoD spokesman comments. “Consequently, the Royal Navy permanently bases four mine countermeasure vessels in Bahrain (rotating personnel every six to eight months) to develop and retain expertise and experience in warm-water operations.

“A Royal Fleet Auxiliary support ship is also based in Bahrain to serve as a floating headquarters for Commander UK Mine Countermeasures.”

Of course, underlying all of these operations is the threat of terrorism and ongoing instability in parts of the wider Middle East. Added to the UK’s contribution to the multinational coalition efforts against ISIS, the Royal Navy is also engaged in detecting and deterring terrorist attacks and related activities, such as the movement of arms. Being able to locate vessels and helicopters permanently in the region above all contributes to a high level of preparedness, should circumstances require action.

“The year-round presence of high-readiness Royal Navy warships, submarines and helicopters, as well as its coalition partners provides a choice of options in the event of a humanitarian crisis or deterioration in regional security,” the MoD spokesman says.

Strait talking

In this, and the Royal Navy’s other missions in the area, having two locations rather than one can be a help rather than a hindrance. While emphasising that neither is a ‘base’, a Royal Navy spokesperson is buoyant about the outlook for the two sites: “In the longer term, we envisage the two locations of Mina Salman and Duqm to be complementary; the fact that one is inside and one outside the Gulf gives us great flexibility and can offer different things: Bahrain is well-placed to support the MCMVs in the region and, to an extent, larger ships while inside the Gulf, while Duqm has considerable potential as a support location for larger task groups and ships operating outside the Gulf/in the Indian Ocean.”

Indeed, it what remains a politically volatile environment, nurturing two interests in parallel has its advantages.

Situated outside of the Persian Gulf, Duqm’s location means that vessels travelling out to sea do not need first to pass through the ‘chokepoint’ waters of the Strait of Hormuz.

Despite a thawing in relations between Iran and the West following the 2015 agreement over the former’s nuclear programme, only in May 2016 Iran warned that, should it feel threatened, it would close the passage to the US and its allies.

However, it is important to note, too, Oman’s ongoing close relationship with Iran, and the latter’s own investment in commercial projects at Duqm. What’s more, with no publicly named successor to Oman’s 76-year old sultan, the risk of a destabilised government in the event of his death cannot be ignored.

Meanwhile, international public concern over the human rights records of Bahrain and Oman also rightly remains a political sticking point for the British Government, and any further strengthening of ties, however militarily beneficial, will be held up to the closest scrutiny in this light.

As developments in the region mature, the UK is playing something of a waiting game; for now at least, it appears that two ‘not-quite bases’ east of Suez are better than one.