Foreign Secretary signs deal for expanded UK military presence in the Gulf, despite concerns over Bahrain’s human rights record.
Britain already has four minehunters permanently based at the Mina Salman Port in the small Arabian Gulf kingdom, but plans announced by Philip Hammond will see an expansion of existing facilities and a new forward operating base, with Bahrain paying most of the £15 million costs.
The kingdom already hosts the US Navy’s 5th Fleet and is a member of the coalition formed to attack Islamic State forces in Iraq and Syria.
Military chiefs are understood to have been working towards the move for around two years, but the threat from the Islamic State group has heightened the focus on Britain’s presence in the region.
Campaign groups including Human Rights Watch have criticised Bahrain‘s record on human rights, particularly after the security crackdown that followed the Arab Spring protests against the ruling monarchy in 2011.
Anti-arms campaigners protested outside a conference in Westminster earlier this year, demanding that the British government and royal family sever all ties with the regime.
Announcing the deal at a security summit in the Bahraini capital Manama today, Mr Hammond said: “To our partners in the Gulf my message is this: Your security concerns are our security concerns.
“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.
“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.”
The move was described as “symbolic” by Chief of the Defence Staff General Sir Nicholas Houghton and reverses a 1960s’ decision to withdraw British forces stationed “east of Suez”.
He told the BBC: “Rather than just being seen as a temporary deployment to an area for a specific operational purpose, this is more symbolic of the fact that Britain does enjoy interests in the stability of this region.
“And the fact that the Bahraini authorities and government agreed to fund infrastructure within the country to base our maritime capability forward, both is a recognition from their perspective of the quality of the relationship with the United Kingdom, but also of our interest over time in maintaining the stability of this very important area.”
Shadow Defence Secretary Vernon Coaker said: “Labour supports the Royal Navy having a strong international footprint with the ability to respond quickly to events in a uncertain global environment.
“British defence policy must be strategically-led. The Strategic Defence and Security Review and a National Security Strategy are due to take place next year, and it was expected long term issues like this would be assessed and decided then.
“The Government should therefore clearly set out its reasons for making this particular decision at this time.”