Rule, Britannia? UK ‘shadow military’ may return to Gulf over instability fears

Rule, Britannia? UK ‘shadow military’ may return to Gulf over instability fears
The UK army is planning to build up a strong “shadow presence” in the Gulf, marking a return to the seat of its old imperial power, a UK think tank said. The Arab Spring and security fears over a nuclear Iran are among the reasons for the move.

The Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) published a report titled ‘A Return to East of Suez? UK Military Deployment to the Gulf’ on Monday morning, analyzing a shift in UK policy that is driven by a “fear of what is happening in the Middle East.”

The report stressed that on the surface, the increased military presence would not mirror the imperial foothold Britain once held in the region.

The military intends to build up a strong shadow presence around the Gulf; not an evident imperial-style footprint, but a smart presence with facilities, defense agreements, rotation of training, transit and jumping-off points,” the report said.

The British withdrew troops from the Gulf region following the East of Suez decision in 1971; the drawdown of Britain’s imperial military influence allowed many Gulf nations to declare their independence.

RUSI maintains that the UK government has no intention of “deploying” military might into the region anytime soon, but emphasizes that an increased presence would be wise due to the “swirling social storms across the region in the wake of the ‘Arab Awakening.’”

Royal Marines practice their drill using a Browning heavy machine gun on the deck of HMS Ocean as it travels through the Persian Gulf. (AFP Photo)

The report outlines the primary motivations behind the UK’s policy shifts as security-based, citing the alleged nuclear threat of Iran as a predominant factor.

“Clearly, the immediate security concern to the entire Gulf region is the future direction of Iran’s nuclear program,” the document notes. “The international community, and especially Israel and the Arab Gulf states, remain fearful of Iranian nuclear ambitions. Iran, too, is entering a volatile period in the run-up to national elections.”

The paper also identifies embattled Syrian President Bashar Assad as a significant factor in regional instability.
The Institute based its conclusions on analysis of recent government policy, which “appears to be approaching a decision point where a significant strategic reorientation of its defense and security towards the Gulf is both plausible and logical."

With regard to the practical applications of a return of military presence to the Gulf, the report said it is more cost-effective to transfer UK military equipment from Afghanistan into the Gulf than back to Britain. Referencing the strategic advantages of a military presence in Oman, the report calls country “terrain ideally suited to the training of military units in the skills of desert warfare.” In 2001, Oman played host to the largest UK military drills in recent history.

A British Royal Navy Sea King helicopter lands on the HMS Illustrious aircraft carrier off Oman's rugged coastline (AFP Photo)

Important trade links with the United Arab Emirates, worth some £14 billion ($21.7 billion), will also influence the return of the UK military to the region. The UK struck a massive deal with the UEA and other Gulf nations to sell 100 Typhoon fighter jets last year, and has pledged “joint collaboration” with the UEA.

Dr. Saul Kelly, the author of the briefing paper, told RT that Britain’s increased presence in the Gulf would be done via a combination of a formal, physical return to bases as well as intensified cooperation with Gulf States, albeit “on a low scale.”

Kelly argues that as the British military presence has grown throughout the region, “particularly over the last decade or so,” financial incentives coupled with broader strategic goals will ensure that the UK’s long-standing practice of defense cooperation in the region will continue.  

“One of the latest defense packages has to deal with the sale of Typhoon jets to various Gulf Arab countries, and that ties in with these continuing defense agreements with local governments. And in an age of austerity in Europe, these defense contracts are important to the British economy, and that is certainly an element of it. But there are [also] long-standing strategic interests that Britain, as a member of the Western Alliance, has in the Gulf area.”

Imperial hangover

In a briefing accompanying the RUSI report, Director General Michael Clarke stressed the importance of the UK solidifying friendships in the region. “It would make sense for the British to have more of a capacity to cooperate with the Americans” whose policy is rapidly changing in the region, he said.

“The Americans will not leave the Middle East, of course they won’t. But they will express their power differently in the Middle East,” Clarke said.

He warned that the press may seek to brand the plans as linked to an “imperial notion of grandeur.” However, he insisted that this was not the case, and that the UK was merely following “sensible aspirations.”