What's behind Britain's renewed desire to establish itself in the Gulf, and is history repeating itself?
Britain has been the most dominant actor in the Gulf region, particularly from the 1820s up until 1971. Even after Gulf countries obtained independence in 1971, Britain continued to remain an influential political, economic and cultural actor in the region.
Recent growth in bilateral trade is an example of that. While the UK’s total trade volume with Gulf Cooperation Council countries was $13.2 billion in 2005, it displayed a sharp increase to $19.1 billion in 2010 and $44.5 billion in 2016. Britain is also an attractive destination for foreign direct investment from the Gulf.
Political cooperation is another driving force of the relationship between the UK and GCC countries.
These relations, however, go beyond defence deals and investment. Generations of Gulf royals are graduates of Sandhurst's Officer Program. These include King Hamad of Bahrain, Sheikh Tamim, the emir of Qatar, and Sultan Qaboos of Oman.
Other past monarchs include Sheikh Saad, the emir of Kuwait, and Sheikh Hamas, the emir of Qatar. King Abdullah of Jordan, is also a notable Sandhurst graduate.
This education is not without value to Gulf monarchs. The third term of Sandhurst's Officer course teaches controversial counter-insurgency techniques and managing public disorder.
More recently, however, we have witnessed a new dimension to this relationship – military cooperation. This only includes ongoing sales of arms and military products and the establishment of permanent military bases by the UK in the Gulf.
The initial signs of this strategy came to the fore in 2014 when the British Armed Forces announced that they had plans to open three military bases in the Gulf region, suggesting that these countries could be Bahrain, Oman, and the United Arab Emirates.
In the following years, this idea became a reality, as the British leadership put their plan into action with their Gulf partners.
In April 2018, the Duke of York attended the opening ceremony of the British Naval Support Facility in Bahrain. The event was followed with great interest in the region. It's reported that the base is the first overseas Royal Navy establishment in almost half a century.
While the British government claims that this facility is aimed to support the operational capacity of the British and Bahraini militaries, geopolitical developments suggest more concrete dimensions as to why Britain opted for this military base at the heart of this tense region.
In addition to Bahrain, on November 5, Britain announced that it would open a military training base in Oman in March 2019. It is suggested that this base will host a large number of British troops as well as military equipment to train and protect the armed forces of Oman.
The British government’s decision to establish military bases in Bahrain and Oman comes at a time of increasing hostility and instability in the oil-rich Gulf region. There are five major, current and historical, geopolitical factors that Britain has taken into consideration before making such moves.
The first is Brexit. The feeling of uncertainty among the British governing elite has forced them to prepare themselves for a post-Brexit shock that would significantly impact the British economy.
To successfully confront the post-Brexit economic backlash that the government fears, the British administration has been increasingly in search of new markets by which it would replace its current trade volume with the EU with other countries, as well as its level of foreign direct investment.
One of the best choices in this regard is the oil-rich Gulf region. Such military engagements will increase trust as well as determination among the Gulf leadership, who are already in search of powerful international allies, to work together with Britain.
Outsized US influence and internal rivalries
Countering increasing US presence and influence in the Gulf region is the second factor. Although Britain was traditionally the major Western power that influenced the Gulf, in the post-Cold War era, US presence in the region overshadowed it.
More recently, Trump’s presidency deepened US relations with dominant countries in the region such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
In a move to restore its position as a regional actor, the British are seeking to utilise military engagement.
Another factor that drove Britain to restore its historic position in the region is the mistrust among Gulf nations. The Qatar crisis created a new political environment among the regional actors, which has increasingly suffered from mistrust.
While Riyadh, Abu Dhabi and Bahrain openly targeted the Qatari leadership, Oman and Kuwait remained neutral. Deep-rooted cooperation with almost all Gulf states led London to realise that such enmities among Gulf partners could also damage the long-term strategic interests of Britain.
Therefore, it’s of great importance to prevent the widening divide between the Gulf countries to protect British interests.
Entering the power vacuum
The forth reason that motivated Britain to establish military bases in the region was the increasing presence of military bases by regional and international actors.
Turkey’s establishment of a military base in Qatar is an example of this. Ankara’s deepening strategic partnership with Doha can be considered a sign that the power vacuum in the geopolitics of the Gulf.
The United Arab Emirates is another example of how countries have pursued aggressive policies in terms of military bases. Abu Dhabi has finalised its military bases in the Yemeni islands of Socotra and Perim, in addition to other recent military establishments in the Eritrean city of Assab.
The UAE’s military aspirations have reached Somalia, as the country completed two military bases in the two semi-autonomous regions in the country, Somaliland and Puntland.
Finally, the Iranian threat must be mentioned as an important reason for British initiatives to establish military bases on the Arabian side of the Gulf. Tehran does not directly pose a threat to Britain, but it is considered the biggest enemy for its regional allies, including Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Israel.
Therefore, the government in London feels pressure from these countries, as well as the US, to take a position against Iran. Hence, as Britain does not prefer harming its bilateral trade relations with Tehran, it has found a solution by providing security protection to its allies in the Gulf region.
Therefore, while keeping its trade volume on track, the UK stands firm in supporting its Gulf allies in their struggle against Tehran’s dominance. In other words, Britain is aware of the fact that it needs to maintain a balanced policy.
Despite carrying a low profile in recent years, Britain has always been in close contact with Gulf states that were once under its official protection. As regional geopolitics transformed, British aspirations to make a comeback to its former sphere of influence became a necessity.
Regardless of its motivations, Britain has successfully opened the door for wider influence in the region, which will inherently secure its future interests.
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