Monday, 29 April 2013

Britain to return East of Suez?

British frigate HMS Richmond, off the coast of Iraq
Britain might be on the cusp of reversing sixty years of post-imperial defence policy, by setting up permanent military basing in the Middle East, according to a fascinating new paper published today by influential defence think tank the Royal United Services Institute. The RUSI report, quoted in today’s Telegraph, suggests the United Arab Emirates, where the RAF is reportedly planning to use al-Minhad airbase, as the focus of a new East of Suez presence. However, UK deployments in the region are focused on the maritime. An airstrip misses the point. So, I thought I would expand on RUSI’s thoughtful exercise by listing a few of the basing options available to Britain within the region. Any agreement would be politically delicate for the UK and for the host country: as far as historical baggage goes, the UK has plenty of "previous" in  the region.

Forward deployment: the maritime context

The strategic rationale for an “East of Suez” return is there: withdrawal from landlocked Afghanistan in a year’s time will leave a hefty UK footprint remaining in the Middle East. Once the Afghan adventure is over, Britain’s already heavy and separate deployments of Royal Navy resources to the region will become all the more conspicuous.

The rolling forward deployment of naval units has gone on for over a decade already, while overall Royal Navy warship numbers have dwindled since the last Strategic Defence and Security Review in 2010, making forward basing more attractive. Local allies, as well as US bases in the region are employed as necessary, but why not set up a permanent UK presence?

Warships have been sent to add to the large US presence designed to deter Iran from closing the Strait of Hormuz; ships contribute to international patrols against Somali piracy; while other vessels are involved with permanent commitments to regional security and training local allies around the Persian Gulf.

Mine countermeasures vessels are already used in deployments that last for years (crews swapping over), while Royal Fleet Auxiliary ships have replaced warship commitments to provide floating anti-piracy platforms. Ongoing tension with Iran, Libya’s post-war rebuild, and continuing conflict in Syria all mean the region will remain Britain’s overseas defence and foreign policy focus for years to come.

The UK keeps a significant share of its available naval resources in the waters off the Middle East (taking into account refits, training, and the logic that for one warship deployed, one is returning and one gearing up to go). Naval sources have repeatedly hinted that the present level of forward deployment is somewhere between stretched and unsustainable.

Even before 9/11, 2002’s Afghan invasion and the 2003 Iraq War, Britain had kept its constant “Armilla Patrol” in the region, to maintain a modicum of striking power and influence in the Persian Gulf.  That presence followed the “East of Suez” retreat of 1968-1971, when Harold Wilson’s government, faced by realities of economic crisis at home and imperial decline abroad, verbalised a process of imperial decline and decolonisation that had begun with the fall of Singapore in 1942, India’s independence in 1947, and the Suez Crisis humiliation for Anthony Eden’s government in 1956.

What are the options for a return to permanent basing? The UK lacks permanent bases or sovereign territory in the region. Sadly, British Forces Cyprus Dhekelia and Akrotiri bases are the wrong side of Suez. At the other end of the scale, the distant British Indian Ocean Territory, with its huge US-developed airbase and port facilities on Diego Garcia, lies much too far away to the south-east to be a useful option. So, below are six potential options in some semblance of descending order of likelihood.


The UAE is a strong contender, as cited by RUSI. The country has remained politically stable – despite first the global financial crisis in 2009-2010  then regional Arab Spring tensions in 2011 – staying peaceful, while neighbours such as Bahrain suffered violent protests.

Dubai's Burj Khalifa
A British colony until 1971, the UAE retains strong UK ties.  Britain has run its Maritime Trade Operations (UK MTO) anti-piracy reporting centre in Dubai for a decade. The Dubai International Financial Centre, the Middle East’s regional financial hub, even implemented UK common law several years ago, for ease of doing business. The city already supports a large community of UK ex-expatriate workers.

Geographically, the UAE is also in the right spot, on one side of the vital Strait of Hormuz – the 50-mile-wide choke point through which oil tankers must transit, running the gauntlet of an Iranian threat from the other side. The huge deepwater port at Jebel Ali is a vital artery for international trade in the region. The US Navy is also a frequent visitor, docking Nimitz-class aircraft carriers at the port’s expansive facilities.

France has also cultivated close defence ties with the UAE over the past decade, including a permanent basing of 450 French troops at Abu Dhabi since 2009, and a deal mooted in 2013 for 60 Rafale fighter aircraft. In 2004 the small UAE Navy announced six new Baynunah-class corvettes in a deal between Constructions Mécaniques de Normandie and Abu Dhabi Ship Building. The lead ship (currently on sea trials) was built in France, while the remainder will be built in the UAE.


Geographically well located for the purpose, Qatar juts out into the Persian Gulf, two-hundred miles west of the UAE, and roughly halfway between the Hormuz Strait and Iraq and Kuwaiti oil terminals at the northern edge of the Gulf.  A US ally since 1972, Qatar is also a former British colony, gaining independence in 1971.

Qatar’s new-found wealth derives from exploitation of natural gas reserves, exported in liquefied form in large, vulnerable ships (LNG carriers). The ongoing decline in UK energy sufficiency means that in the decades to come, Britain’s energy supply is increasingly dependent on continuous, regular LNG shipments from Qatar to the Port of Milford Haven. Qatar’s growing financial services hub marks (like Dubai’s) a shared economic interest with the UK. The country will also host the 2022 football World Cup. 

The US is a close ally since the 2003 Iraq War, when its al-Udeid air base was developed and expanded for use by US forces. During the invasion the US operated the nerve centre of its Central Command headquarters from Qatar. In 2011, Qatar joined US, UK, French and other forces in aiding Libyan rebels in the war against Colonel Gaddafi. Qatar has also reported to be aiding Syrian rebels.

Qatar has remained stable as it has grown rich in recent years, despite the financial crisis and regional Arab Spring frictions. In 2005 an Egyptian suicide bomber killed 1 UK national in Doha. In January 2012 the Afghan Taliban said it would set up an office in Qatar in order to conduct diplomatic negotiations. While controversial  this move has tacit US backing. In March 2013, Afghan president Hamid Karzai met the Emir of Qatar to discuss negotiating a peace settlement in Afghanistan.


France’s East African base in Djibouti has an advantageous position at the Gulf of Aden strategic choke-point for maritime trade.  The permanent French base plays an important role within France’s military basing strategy for its strategic “backyard” of francophone Africa, in support of anti-piracy operations, with Somalia to its south, and regional security in the Red Sea and Indian Ocean region. 

France signed a defence treaty with Djibouti in 1977 on the country’s decolonisation from former French Somaliland. France retains 2,900 troops within its Djibouti permanent base, including 2 regiments, 1 transport aircraft; 10 combat aircraft, 10 helicopters, and 1 maritime patrol aircraft (as of 2008).

“France is now more open-minded and more tolerant to other powers in Africa. For instance, in recent years, France  welcomed US and Japan to open new military bases in Djibouti, and  the three nations have shared the military facilities in the horn of  Africa,” noted an academic paper, Sentry Box in the Backyard: Analysis of French Military Bases in Africa”, published in the Journal of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies (in Asia) Vol. 5, No. 3, 2011.

Djibouti  is home to a sizeable US base set up between 2003 and 2008. Camp Lemonnier is a US naval expeditionary base for Horn of Africa anti-piracy and counter-terrorism operations. The base reportedly operates F-15s, contains over 3,000 personnel – including special forces – and is a noted drone operations centre in the region, notable for launching controversial assassination missions against Al Qaeda leaders in nearby Yemen.

The Horn of Africa base represents returns for both the US and Japan – two decades after the Battle of Mogadishu, “Blackhawk Down”  and the US exit from Somalia.  Japan meanwhile initially based its personnel at the US base but has between 150-200 personnel based near the airport since 2011, supporting its naval operations in the anti-piracy role. It is Japan’s first overseas military base set up since World War II.

Since Britain and France’s new defence treaty in 2010, avenues for bilateral defence cooperation between the two European powers have broadened. While France has in the past closely guarded its influence in francophone Africa, tight budgets and high demand on resources (for both countries) has led to greater cooperation.

The trend was continued. This year when UK forces provided logistical support to France’s intervention against Islamist rebels in Mali. Royal Navy frigates and Royal Fleet Auxillery vessels have also become more regular callers at Djibouti recently. In 2013, French frigate Surcouf embarked a UK Lynx helicopter as its air-wing for an Indian Ocean anti-piracy patrol.

Further examples of closer cooperation Britain and France’s leading role in 2011’s Libyan war, last year’s large-scale Operation Cougar naval exercises in the Mediterranean, this year’s multinational Joint Warrior exercises in the Atlantic, as well as efforts to collaborate on submarine patrols for nuclear deterrence, and for future availability of aircraft carrier strike capabilities.


Iraq remains highly unstable, ten years after it was invaded in 2003. While the Royal Navy played a useful role in training the nascent Iraqi Navy to defend its oil terminals against Iranian attacks, political conditions make long-term basing rights unlikely. US troops formally exited at the end of 2011, crossing into Kuwait, although 4,000 remain in two bases. The political likelihood of Iraq granting any basing rights to Britain at Umm Qasr seems far-fetched.

In comparison, Iraq’s small neighbour Kuwait remains favourably disposed towards the coalition of countries that took part in the Gulf War of 1991 to liberate it from Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi invasion the previous year. That said, the US was sensitive to the influx of its troops crossing into Kuwait from Iraq in 2011, citing Kuwaiti sensitivities. This would presumably make new basing deals with the UK politically delicate.

After liberation from Iraq, oil-rich Kuwait signed long-term defence cooperation agreements with the US, Britain and France. The country was a major staging post for the 2003 invasion of Iraq. It remains a major base for the US Fifth Fleet, with several American bases totalling around 15,000 military personnel as of 2012. Kuwaiti naval forces conducted joint exercises with British frigate HMS Monmouth in April 2013.


Britain has long-standing defence relationships with the absolute monarchy of Oman. The country’s armed forces use British Challenger II main battle tanks, BAE-supplied Hawk jets, and troops are frequently trained and briefed by British Army regulars and special forces. In 2007, the Royal Navy of Oman ordered three new Khareef-class corvettes from VT Group, built for £400m in Portsmouth. A basing agreement in the country, if allowed, would give the Royal Navy a permanent presence, close to Iran, on the Indian Ocean side of the Strait of Hormuz.

USS Cole, attacked in Port Aden in 2000
Oman borders Yemen, which remains unstable and has been home to Al-Qaeda groups in recent years – most notable for targeted. An attack in January 2000 on guided missile destroyer USS The Sullivans failed when Al-Qaeda terrorists loaded so much explosive onto their suicide craft that it sank. In October that year the attack method was repeated with success against sistership USS Cole, which was badly damaged, killing 17 US sailors and injuring 39.

Al-Qaeda infiltration across the border has occurred in recent years, adding terrorism risk for both Yemen and Oman. The Yemeni government has fought the terrorists with support from US drone attacks, but the country is far from secure. Britain’s military has extensive experience in the area, dating back to the Aden Emergency between 1963-1967. The country was politically united in 1990, but as of the South Yemen movement of 2007, remains unstable. 


Home to United States Naval Forces Central Command and the vast US Fifth Fleet since 1947, Bahrain is already a huge centre for regional naval operations for the Red Sea, Arabian Sea and Persian Gulf. The country also has close relations with regional power Saudi Arabia. Its US and Saudi friends put Bahrain at the forefront of tensions with nearby Iran.

The US base has been home to multiple Nimitz-class aircraft carrier task groups in recent years, with one or two super carriers always resident dependent on rotation.  While the US presence is a huge, secure and capable base for UK resources, there is scant potential for  additional independent basing.

Britain already has significant naval command and intelligence staffs in the country, assigned as part of Combined Maritime Forces (CTFs 150, 151 and 152) within the American command structures, in the regional anti-piracy, counter-terrorism and regional security (counter-Iran) roles.

Strategically well placed at the centre of the Persian Gulf, sandwiched between Qatar and Saudi Arabia, tiny Bahrain suffered serious instability during the 2011 Arab Spring, causing leaders to call in intervention from Saudi forces, who occupied the country to quell popular dissent. That ought to ring alarm bells for Bahrain allowing further foreign presence, as well as for any would-be basing there.


  1. The Middle East shouldn't be too overcrowded.

    Diego Gracia should be re-evaluated as a stop off point but that would be more from the budget. An alternative would be to cut back on the Cyprus bases--certainly two battalions plus is a little overdoing it over there.

    Anyway, time to move to the proper "East of Suez"--Southeast Asia.

  2. Looks like Bahrain, then. UK MCC expansion.