Britain’s ‘Return East of Suez’: A Historical Perspective

A parade of the Trucial Oman Scouts in the early 1960s. The Trucial Oman Scouts were a security force under direct British control designed to preserve law and order in the Trucial shaikhdoms (today’s United Arab Emirates)
A parade of the Trucial Oman Scouts in the early 1960s. The Trucial Oman Scouts were a security force under direct British control designed to preserve law and order in the Trucial shaikhdoms (today’s United Arab Emirates).

Helene von Bismarck

In March 2016, Defence Secretary Michael Fallon confirmed during a trip to Oman that the British Government was considering the establishment of a permanent army training base there. It is the latest in a series of announcements indicating that Britain is extending and consolidating its military presence in the Persian Gulf.

This development started in 2010, when incoming Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron announced the ‘Gulf Initiative’, by which he meant a coordinated attempt to rekindle Britain’s formerly close relationships with the Gulf States. The implementation of this policy was delayed by the advent of the Arab Spring, but was kickstarted again in December 2014 when Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond confirmed that Britain would build a Royal Navy base in Bahrain. In November 2015, the Strategic Defence Review published by the British Government called for a ‘new Gulf strategy’ and ‘a permanent and more substantial UK military presence’ in the area.

Nor has the British Government shied away from invoking Britain’s imperial past in this context. The Strategic Defence Review stressed Britain’s ‘historic relationships’ with Bahrain, Qatar, Oman, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates, and Mr. Hammond went as far as calling the project to build a base in Bahrain Britain’s ‘return East of Suez’.[1]

The connection between Britain and the Gulf States goes back a very long way indeed. Britain had maintained an imperial presence in the Persian Gulf from the beginning of the nineteenth century — when the East India Company still concluded treaties with foreign governments in the name of the British Crown — until the British Government abrogated its so-called ‘Exclusive Treaties’ with the rulers of the Gulf States and withdrew its forces from the area as part of the larger military retreat from East of Suez in 1971.[2] In contrast to what happened in most of the British Empire’s other Middle Eastern dependencies, this did not end because of local opposition to British imperialism. Quite the opposite: the local rulers reacted with considerable shock and dismay to the British Government’s decision to withdraw, and, in an attempt to make them reconsider, even offered to pay for Britain’s continued military protection.

British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond and Bahraini Foreign Minister Sheik Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa, center help lay a cornerstone for a new British military base being built in Manama, Bahrain. AP Photo/Hasan Jamali
British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond and Bahraini Foreign Minister Sheik Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa, center help lay a cornerstone for a new British military base being built in Manama, Bahrain. AP Photo/Hasan Jamali.

After independence, the relations between political and business elites in Britain and the Gulf remained close. From a strategic viewpoint, Mr. Hammond’s East of Suez-declaration in 2014 amounts to an exaggeration, because, Britain became militarily involved in the Gulf again as early as 1979, even though this presence has been neither permanent, nor as significant as it is currently planned.[3]

That said, this is not to suggest that the British Government is now seeking to re-establish a colonial-type of presence in the Persian Gulf. Until 1971, Britain’s power in the area was largely based on the exclusivity of its relationship with the local rulers, a situation which could not be further away from today’s realities.

Then, no country other than Britain enjoyed diplomatic relations with the Gulf States, and Britain’s so-called men on the spot were ultimately the very small window through which the rulers had to channel their communications with the outside world. Today, the Gulf States, thanks to their oil wealth, are small but influential players on the international stage, and globalization has affected them both economically and culturally.

Britain, together with the United States, is still the preferred partner of the local governments in matters regarding defence and security, but when it comes to trade and investment, it is competing with steadily growing Asian influence. The Gulf States have been undergoing a significant generational shift and hope for greater political participation is widespread among the well-educated younger generation. Therefore, the British Government cannot expect to base its Gulf policy indefinitely on a guaranteed special relationship with local elites.[4]

But the new Gulf strategy of the British Government is an attempt to find new solutions for old problems. Since the beginning of the oil age in the mid-twentieth century, Britain’s economic interests in the Gulf have been extremely important, and this did not really change with the end of empire.

The greatest problem of all is the inherent vulnerability of the Gulf States, which results from their wealth, their small size, and their location in a vital — and volatile — region. During the imperial era, the British Government was greatly concerned about the possibility of an attack against the smaller Gulf States by one of their three large neighbours, Saudi Arabia, Iraq or Iran. Today, regional transnational developments such as the increase of sectarian tension and the advance of the murderous Da’esh once again endanger Gulf security and stability.

It’s not only access to the local energy reserves that matters to Britain, but also the significant investments the wealthy Gulf States make in the City of London. Another problem reminiscent of the imperial era is the recent tendency of the US Government to reduce its role in the defence of the Gulf, a position it took up only grudgingly following Britain’s retreat from the area.[5] The American ‘Pivot to Asia’ may until now be more catchphrase than reality, but the shale-gas revolution means that the United States is becoming energy self-sufficient. Its interest in the Middle East might wane accordingly.[6]

The new Gulf strategy of the Cameron Government comes more clearly into focus when the contemporary problem of an inherently unstable area, where Britain maintains significant economic interests, and cannot automatically rely on the United States to protect them is viewed alongside its longer imperial context.

Dr. Helene von Bismarck received her Dr.phil. from the Humboldt-University in Berlin. She is the author of British policy in the Persian Gulf 1961-1968. Conceptions of Informal Empire (Palgrave Macmillan 2013). She is the Director of Outreach of the British Scholar Society. You can follow her on Twitter @helenebismarck

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[1] National Security Strategy and Strategic Defence and Security Review 2015. A Secure and Prosperous United Kingdom. Presented to Parliament by the Prime Minister by Command of Her Majesty (November 2015).

[2] Onley, James, James Onley, ‘Britain’s Informal Empire in the Gulf’, Journal of Social Affairs, Vol. 22, No. 87, Fall 2005, pp. 29-45; Balfour-Paul, Glencairn, The End of Empire in the Middle East: Britain’s Relinquishment of Power in her Last Three Arab dependencies, Cambridge 1991; Dockrill, Saki, Britain’s Retreat from East of Suez: the Choice between Europe and the World? Basingstoke, 2002.

[3] Stansfield, Gareth and Saul Kelly, A Return to East of Suez? UK Military Deployment to the Persian Gulf, Briefing Paper for the Royal United Services Institute (April 2013).

[4] Kinnimont, Jane, Future Trends in the Gulf, Chatham House Report (February 2015), https://www.chathamhouse.org/sites/files/chathamhouse/field/field_document/20150218FutureTrendsGCCKinninmont.pdf.

[5] Ulrichsen, Kristian, From Desert strom to Implementation day, a Gulf of Expectations, Baker Institute Blog (19 January 2016), http://blog.chron.com/bakerblog/2016/01/from-desert-storm-to-implementation-day-a-gulf-of-expectations/

[6] Mitchell, John, US Energy: the New Reality, Chatham House Briefing Paper (May 2013), https://www.chathamhouse.org/sites/files/chathamhouse/public/Research/Energy%2C%20Environment%20and%20Development/0513bp_usenergy.pdf

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