The motives behind the newly announced UK naval base in Oman
DUBAI - The United Kingdom has concluded an agreement with Oman to establish a permanent naval base near the new Duqm port being developed in a remote town on the Arabian Sea. The announcement comes just months after construction began in Bahrain for the United Kingdom’s first permanent naval base in the Middle East since 1967.
The UK-Oman agreement involves a joint venture between Babcock International Group and Oman Drydock Company to create modern naval support services facilities at the new base. Oman Drydock Company (ODC) has given the ship repair yard and two dry docks at Duqm port, inaugurated in June 2012, on long-lease to South Korean company Daewoo Shipbuilding & Marine Engineering.
According to British Defence Minister Michael Fallon, the base in Oman will help establish “a permanent training hub” in addition to a key military logistics centre that “will bring British engineering expertise to help develop Duqm as a strategic port for the Middle East on the Indian Ocean, benefiting the Royal Navy and others”.
There is high demand for naval support services in and around the Arabian Gulf, including from the Royal Navy of Oman (RNO), as naval modernisation takes shape.
The new naval support services facility will provide support to two 65,000-tonne aircraft carriers being built for the UK Royal Navy as well as the British-built, multi-role guided-missile Khareef-class corvettes recently inducted into service with the RNO.
BAE Systems executed a $650 million contract awarded by Oman for three corvettes. The Khareef-class corvettes rank among the most capable and most modern warships operated regionally.
Oman is seen by Britain as an important partner and was described by Fallon as “a source of stability in the troubled region”. A former British protectorate, Oman has long-standing defence ties with the United Kingdom, which remains its main arms supplier. In 2012, Oman signed a deal valued at about $4 billion for 12 Typhoon multi-role jets and eight Hawk Advanced Jet Trainer aircraft, including in-service and training support.
British officials have developed a plan to establish an army training base in Oman, which is viewed as a force of moderation in a region prone to political polarisation and therefore has an important role to play in regional crises. That perception was reinforced in recent years as Muscat performed a crucial back-room role in brokering tensions between Iran and the West.
Oman also plays an important role in overseeing the passage of international shipping through the Strait of Hormuz, through which some 30% of globally bound oil passes every day.
Duqm port and dry docks are part of the most ambitious projects ever undertaken in Oman, where the leadership is aiming to develop a major trade and logistics hub. Oman plans to construct a new airport, rail network and oil and gas pipelines connecting with Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries as well as refineries, oil and gas storage terminals, a petrochemical complex and warehousing facilities around an integrated free trade zone in Duqm.
If Duqm port yields the results the Omani leadership is hoping for, observers say it could challenge the traditional dominance of Dubai by creating another viable regional trading centre that removes the potential risks and costs of transiting the Arabian Gulf. Duqm could also become even more significant strategically from a defence and international security perspective and this would provide the United Kingdom enormous operational flexibility for its forces in the region.
Combined with the new naval base in Bahrain, which is already home to the largest permanent detachment of the British Royal Navy outside the United Kingdom as part of the Combined Maritime Force, which includes the US Navy 5th Fleet in Manama, the United Kingdom can be expected to deploy a much wider and modern range of naval assets in the region than it has for generations.
At the same time, Oman will benefit from its deepening ties with the United Kingdom because they not only add to its regional influence and boost national security but also align well with its wider economic goals for Duqm by supporting industrial growth.