Opening a permanent military base in Bahrain marks Britain’s clear commitment to a “sustained presence east of Suez”, the Foreign Secretary has said.
Philip Hammond told a security summit that bolstering the Royal Navy’s presence in the Gulf would allow the UK and its allies in the region to “tackle the threats we face together”.
Britain already has four minehunters permanently based at the Mina Salman Port, but the plans will allow for an increase in the number and size of warships sent to the area.
The British are justifying the expansion in terms of countering the threat from ISIS but analysts also believe that the move is a further attempt to put pressure on Iran.
Britain is also likely to attract considerable criticism for the move because of the despotic nature of the Bahraini regime which brutally quashed a peaceful mass uprising in 2011 with the help of Saudi troops.
“To our partners in the Gulf my message is this: Your security concerns are our security concerns,” Mr Hammond said in a speech in Manama, Bahrain. “So our strategic priority for the Gulf and for the wider region is to build partnerships. Partnerships for security; partnerships for prosperity; partnerships for stability.”
He added: “The expansion of our footprint that this arrangement will now allow means we will have the capability to send more and bigger ships, and to sustain them and their crews in permanent facilities. A clear statement of our commitment to our sustained presence east of Suez. A reminder of our historic and close relationship with Bahrain and one example of our growing partnership with Gulf allies to tackle the threats we face together.
“And those threats have taken on a new and insidious form: in Benghazi and in Mosul, in Yemen and in Northern Nigeria, we face a common but shadowy enemy: extremists who seek to hijack Islam to impose their own perverted agenda by fear and by the sword; who reject all norms of civilised behaviour; who challenge all structures of established order.”
Human rights concerns
Under the deal, existing facilities at the port will be expanded and a forward operating base established, with Bahrain paying most of the £15 million infrastructure costs.
Defence Secretary Michael Fallon said: “This new base is a permanent expansion of the Royal Navy’s footprint and will enable Britain to send more and larger ships to reinforce stability in the Gulf. We will now be based again in the Gulf for the long term.”
Mr Hammond signed the deal with Bahrain’s foreign minister Sheikh Khalid bin Ahmed bin Mohammed Al-Khalifa.
Sheikh Khalid said: “It reaffirms our joint determination to maintain regional security and stability in the face of challenging circumstances, and gives further strength to our multifaceted partnership.
“Bahrain looks forward to the early implementation of today’s arrangement and to continuing to work with the UK and other partners to address threats to regional security.”
A string of human rights groups, including Human Rights Watch, have criticised the state’s human rights record, and anti-arms campaigners protested outside a This is Bahrain conference in Westminster earlier this year, demanding the Government and royal family sever all ties with the regime.
The move was slammed by leading Bahraini opposition activist and protest leader Nabeel Rajeeb, who emphasized that Britain has been one of the only countries openly supporting the “repressive” government in Bahrain.
“I think you will see a lot of people opposing this base in Bahrain, especially as it’s coming from a government that is not a friendly government to our struggle for democracy and human rights and totally supports the repressive regime here in Bahrain,” said Rajeeb in an interview with RT.
Bahrain already hosts the region’s largest naval base, dominated by the American military.
Naval Support Activity Bahrain (or NSA Bahrain) in Manama is a former installation of the Royal Navy, transferred to the US government in 1971, when Britain withdrew from the Persian Gulf. The NSA Bahrain is home to the US Fifth Fleet and headquarters to the US Naval Forces Central Command in the region.
The US also has major bases in Qatar, Kuwait, UAE and Oman and is also thought to have secret bases in Saudi Arabia.