A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Monday, April 29, 2013

RUSI Briefing Paper Suggests UK May Return to "East of Suez"

I was just entering the Middle East studies field back in 1971 when Britain wrapped up its once dominant presence "East of Suez" the Kipling-inspired phrase used to refer to the British position in the Gulf. Announced several years earlier, as a result of British Prime Minister Harold Wilson's rolling back of Britain's power projection, Britain dissolved its various protectorates, leading to formal indepenndence in Bahrain, Qatar, and Oman, and the creation of the United Arab Emirates. (Kuwait had become independent the decade before.)

Today, the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), the venerable (founded by the Duke of Wellington) British think tank on defense affairs, released a Briefing Paper called "A Return to the East of Suez."

There's a press release here, and you can download the whole report in PDF here.  A video announcing the report, written by Gareth Stansfield and Saul Kelly and introduced by Michael Clarke, appears below.

The report is being seen by some in the British press almost as if it were a formal announcement of government policy, and in fact it may be intended to prepare the ground for such a step. It  may also be an attempt to reassure friendly Gulf states (especially the UAE) that they will not be left high and dry as the US retrenches after withdrawing from Iraq and preparing to withdraw from Afghanistan.

From Michael Clarke's Foreword:
At a time of economic retrenchment and growing uncertainty within Europe, it may seem strange that the UK sees its future military security increasingly‘east of Suez’. Such an emotive phrase suggests imperial ambitions at a time when UK armed forces are smaller than they have been for 200 years. But there are compelling reasons for the UK to take its Gulf relationships much more seriously.
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, defence agreements, rotation of training, transit and jumping-off points for forces that aim to be more adaptable and agile as they face the post-Afghanistan years from 2014. The Minhad airbase at Dubai in the United

Arab Emirates (UAE) has emerged as the key to this smart presence and more will be heard about it, alongside the Typhoon deal with the UAE, in the near future.
This may not yet be declared government policy; indeed, the government may prefer not to plunge into a public debate about it. But the UK appears to be approaching a decision point where a significant strategic reorientation of its defence and security towards the Gulf is both plausible and logical. This was not an evident assumption of the 2010 Strategic Defence and Security Review and it remains to be seen whether the government will choose to enshrine a reinvigorated Gulf policy as a strategic shift in its defence and security focus. But there are compelling reasons for the government to consider it during 2013, in the light of the outcome of the UAE state visit to the UK at the end of this month.
The release video:

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