UK naval base in Bahrain a strategic necessity: British MP
London - The United Kingdom is working diligently to ensure the stability and security of long-time Gulf ally Bahrain. Among initiatives are efforts to assist the Bahraini government in its reform endeavours and a new British naval base to address security challenges in the region.
The naval base is the cornerstone of the two countries’ joint security strategy and will be the first UK Royal Navy base in the Middle East in more than four decades. Construction began on the HMS Juffair in November at the Mina Salman Port in Bahrain, which. according to UK Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond, will ensure Britain’s sustained presence east of Suez, a global security priority.
Highlighting the security challenges is British Member of Parliament and Foreign Affairs Select Committee member Daniel Kawczynski, who said: “Bahrain was critical in the war to liberate Kuwait so for Bahrain to give us the opportunity to construct a naval base is of the most profound strategic importance.”
A security concern is the Strait of Hormuz, where 40% of the world’s seaborne oil exports passes. Any long-term closure of the waterway would cause a global economic meltdown.
Kawczynski said keeping the Strait of Hormuz open is critical “so anything from the West’s perspective that guarantees the security and protection of the Strait of Hormuz is very important not just for our country but for the entire Western economy”.
Iran has threatened on numerous occasions to close the strait and despite recent rapprochement between Tehran and the West, regional and global powers are not prepared to gamble with regard to securing the strait. Kawczynski described being able to protect the strait as an insurance policy for the United Kingdom, despite recent improvements in ties between London and Tehran.
“Bahrain is an important strategic country and we will not allow anybody to destabilise it in any way,” Kawczynski added.
The base is 190km from Iran, 450km from Iraq and 550km from the Strait of Hormuz, making the location is beyond strategic. Bahrain is to pay most of the $23 million required to build the base, with the United Kingdom paying additional costs.
The base will provide support and accommodation for about 80 UK military personnel based in Bahrain. The base will also lessen UK reliance on US facilities — the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet and US Naval Forces Central Command are based in Bahrain — and will provide port facilities for the Royal Navy’s new generation of aircraft carriers.
Some Bahraini activists labelled the new base a reward to the British government over its silence on human rights abuses in Bahrain, a notion Kawczynski disputes.
“The government is sincere in wanting to implement these reforms. I think they realise the importance of national stability and I think the likelihood of success will be augmented by the fact that the United Kingdom is playing such a supportive role in helping them,” he said.
Kawczynski stressed that the UK government does independent due diligence on the matter and said: “When we go to Bahrain we don’t just accept everything the government tells us. We meet with NGOs and human rights organisations.”
The United Kingdom is involved in the political reform component of the Bahrain National Dialogue initiative, which is daunting and ambitious in scope. This has resulted in an elected parliament with expanded powers, with a mandate that focuses on fighting corruption and efforts to reduce sectarian tensions. The United Kingdom is working with Bahrain to develop educational and legal reform programmes to promote religious and political tolerance.
Kawczynski said the “Arab spring” was not a phenomenon exclusive to the Arab world. “We’ve also had it here in our own country. We’ve had demonstrations and violence and insurrections and if I cast my line all the way back to Northern Ireland, we’ve almost had 40 years of it,” he said.
Which is why Bahrain can benefit from the United Kingdom’s experience and expertise.
“What we’re doing is working hand in glove with the Bahrainis to try to give them our experience and in a practical way support them in establishing the tools by which, if implemented correctly, would give more confidence to those people who felt at that time the compulsion to demonstrate,” Kawczynski added.