A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Monday, December 8, 2014

43 Years After the Retreat from "East of Suez," Britain Will Have a Base in the Gulf Again

J.B. Kelly, thou shouldst be living at this hour! (If you don't get the reference, see my 2009 obit, "J.B Kelly, 84: The last Imperial Briton.")

Back in 1968, British Prime Minister Harold Wilson and Defence Secretary Denis Healey announced that for budgetary and strategic reasons, Britain would be withdrawing from its remaining bases and colonial relationships in the Persian Gulf and Indian Ocean, many of which dated back to the days when Britain's control of India required chains of defense positions along the routes of empire. Aden had already been given up with the independence of South Yemen in 1967, and the Suez Canal itself, of course, in 1956 (though from 1967 the Canal itself was closed to traffic until after the 1973 war). The policy meant pulling British bases out of Malaysia, Singapore, the Maldives, and the Gulf states, and granting independence to those Gulf states that had remained protectorates. This was known as the policy of retreating from "East of Suez," (the phrase was Kipling's), and led to the formal independence of Bahrain, Qatar, and the formation of the UAE in 1970-71.

In addition, the British withdrew forces from Malaysia, Singapore, and the Maldives, leaving no formal bases between Cyprus and Hong Kong.

British advisers and seconded officers remained influential in some of the newly-independent states (some until quite recently), and British special forces (along with the RAF and Jordanian and Iranian troops) assisted Oman in putting down the Dhofar rebellion down to 1975, but the era of permanent British bases "East of Suez" ended in 1971.

Well, they're baaack, or soon will be.

During the various Iraq wars, Britain has kept up a naval presence in the Gulf when needed and currently operates four minesweepers out of Bahrain, but Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond has announced an agreement to set up a base in Bahrain that, in The Guardian's words, "will also be a base for much larger ships including destroyers and aircraft carriers." 

The more Tory Telgrraph  offers its interpretation here.

Hammond reportedly noted that Britain and France are seeking to play a bigger role in Gulf Defense now due to the US "pivot' towards East Asia. (France has an air base at Dhafra in the UAE.) Ironically, the large US role in the Gulf was originally developed to fill the vacuum created by the British fallback of 1971.

Some critics have characterized the announcement as a "reward" from Bahrain for Britain's silence about Bahraini human rights issues post-Arab Spring. Bahrain is, of course also the headquarters off the US Fifth Fleet. Patrick Cockburn offers an example of this criticism in his "Building a British naval base in Bahrain is a 'symbolic choice' – for no clear reason" in The Independent:
The British decision to spend £15m establishing a naval base at Mina Salman Port in Bahrain is being presented as a "symbolic" deal to increase stability in the region, guard against unnamed threats and strengthen Britain's partnership with the states of the Gulf.
The agreement will identify Britain as an old colonial power strongly supporting the Sunni monarchy in Bahrain that mercilessly crushed demands for democracy and civil rights from the island's Shia majority during the Arab Spring in 2011. Even by the standards of the time, repression was excessive. Shia mosques and holy places were bulldozed. Doctors at the main hospital in Bahrain that treated injured protesters were tortured by being forced to stand without sleep for days on end. Other prisoners were told that unless they sang the praises of the king their interrogators would urinate into their mouths.
And for historical trivia buffs: Back in 1968 when Defense Secretary Denis Healey announced the British retrenchment, he did not originally say "East of Suez," but "East of Aden," though Britain had lowered the Union Jack in Aden the year before. "East of Suez," however, became both the official and unofficial shorthand for the policy, inspired by the lines from Rudyard Kipling's "Mandalay":
Ship me somewhere East of Suez, where the best is like the worst
Where there aren't no Ten Commandments an' a man can raise a thirst.

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