Britain for military presence in Gulf

Following the US, Britain intends to plant bases or expand its presence in Qatar, Kuwait, and the UAE.

Britain is using the threat posed by the rise of Islamic State (IS) to re-establish a major military presence in the Gulf, reversing a policy adopted in 1968 of withdrawing forces based “east of Suez.”

Britain’s first step will be to build a permanent naval base at Salman Port, Bahrain’s primary cargo and customs port located at the capital Manama’s harbour on the island’s eastern shore 220 km from Iran’s coast.

Britain’s previous pretext for creating a strong military presence in the Gulf was to provide protection for India and other imperial holdings “east of Suez.” The new base will serve a range of British naval vessels operating in the Gulf in addition to the four minesweepers already operating from Bahrain. Manama has offered to contribute $15 million of the $23 million required to build the facility and Britain will pay upkeep costs.

In the 1970s, as part of its Gulf pull-out, Britain transferred its base in Salman Port, known as the Naval Support Activity facility, to the US. The base, expanded after the 2003 US war on Iraq, is now the home port of the US Fifth Fleet which comes under US Central Command.

Bahraini opposition figures and human rights activists have condemned the agreement with the kingdom's autocratic Sunni rulers who have, with the help of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, brutally suppressed protests by majority Shias against inequality and lack of democracy. Scores of Bahraini opposition figures have been jailed, several killed over the past four years.

Following the example of its US ally, Britain intends to plant bases or expand its presence in Qatar, Kuwait, and the UAE. Britain’s Royal United Services Institute military think tank said the UK seeks to establish a “strong shadow presence” around the Gulf. A “shadow presence” in the shadow of the US, of course. Britain and France – which have established a joint air, naval and land facility in Abu Dhabi – claim they seek to share the burden of providing stability in the Gulf while the US focuses on extending its global reach into the Asia-Pacific region.

However, the urgent need to tackle IS and re-establish “stability” in strategic West Asia is being used by the neo-colonial US and its partners, former colonial powers, Britain and France, which divided up the region following World War I, to reassert the West's physical presence and political and economic interests.

The three external powers have also competed for lucrative arms deals supplying the oil and gas rich Gulf states with weapons for self-defence. Bahrain alone has purchased $48.9 million in military equipment from Britain.

Britain’s 1968-71 pull-back from bases in the Gulf was motivated by economic as well as political factors. It was financially unable to sustain its presence in the Gulf while the citizens of the region were stirred by the secular pan-Arab nationalist drive for independence that freed Syrian and Lebanon in the 1940s and Egypt in 1952.

Instead of democracy, Arab nationalism delivered dictatorships in the Levant and autocracy in the Gulf. Independent rulers – Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser, Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and Syria’s Hafez al-Assad – were demonised, sanctioned and shunned by the Western powers but pro-Western dictators – Egypt’s Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak – and Gulf potentates were supported by the US and Britain. France focused on client dictators in North Africa. 

Radical jihadism
The external powers also approved Saudi Arabia’s export of its ultra-conservative 18th century fundamentalist ideology, Wahhabism which planted the seeds of fundamentalist radicalism in the minds of migrant labourers and built and staffed mosques and madrassas as counter-weights to secular Arab nationalism. Today, the region is reaping the harvest of radical jihadism, exemplified by al-Qaeda, founded by Saudi citizen Osama bin Laden, and IS, an offshoot rejected for its extremism by al-Qaeda central.

The IS and al-Qaeda now provide the raison d’etre for Western air action in Syria and Iraq launched from military bases in the Gulf. Distant Australia has also joined the campaign, flexing its imperialist muscle in West Asia for the first time as an independent country. The window of opportunity for the imperialists to return to West Asia opened up after the Bush administration conquered and occupied Iraq in 2003, dismissed its armed forces and dismantled its ruling party. This left a political-military vacuum that was gradually filled by al-Qaeda in Iraq and its successors, the latest being IS.

By backing rebels against the Syrian government since unrest erupted in 2011, the US and its partners created a second vacuum that has been exploited by al-Qaeda’s official offshoot, Jabhat al-Nusra, and renegade, IS, which has seized control of large swathes of territory in Syria and Iraq. For the West, the campaign against IS has become an imperial “war-of-no-choice” because the West

cannot afford to see the energy-producing Gulf states and Saudi Arabia destabilised by IS and other jihadi groups.

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