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Britain's new base in Bahrain

December 8, 2014 at 3:13 pm

On Saturday December 7, the British Government announced that it would re-open its first naval base in the Gulf since it withdrew from the region in 1971. The base will be in Bahrain, a country that that has been in turmoil since February 2011 when popular protests were harshly suppressed by the regime.

Bahrain’s government has also agreed to pay the majority of the costs towards establishing the base, some £15 million. The announcement of the base was met by protests in Sitra, a Shia majority town, which has been a focal point for resistance. Protesters called for the resignation of Britain’s ambassador.

Philip Hammond, Britain’s foreign minister, told the audience at the a regional summit at Manama that the new Navy base will allow Britain

to send more and bigger ships and to sustain them and their crews in permanent facilities – a clear statement of our commitment to our sustained presence east of Suez, a reminder of our historic and close relations with Bahrain and another example of our growing partnership with Gulf allies to tackle the threats we face together“.

The timing of the construction of this base, as well as the fact that Britain remains close to Bahrain’s government in spite of myriad human rights abuses during the protests, lead to obvious suspicions of an ulterior motive.

Indeed, the fact that General Sir Nicholas Houghton, Britain’s Defence Chief of Staff, told BBC Radio 4 that the base is “symbolic”, is perhaps even more surprising. This is because in this case both Britain and Bahrain seem to be readily inviting references to their colonial past.


Bahrain has been ruled by King Hamad Bin Isa Al-Khalifa since 1999. In the first half of the last decade, King Hamad introduced major political changes, including moves to establish a constitutional monarchy, parliamentary elections and votes for women.

In 2001 the possibility of a full constitutional monarchy – the National Action Charter – won the support of 98.4 per cent of voters in a referendum, though it has not been carried out. Officially the lower national assembly chamber, the Majlis Al-Nuwab, is elected, however it is widely accepted to be gerrymandered and weak.

However, real power in the Kingdom lies somewhere between the King and his uncle, Prime Minister Sheikh Khalifa Bin Salman Al-Khalifa – the longest serving premier in the world – who took office in 1970, before the country became independent.


Since February 2011, Bahrain has been ravaged by a crisis which has effectively reshaped the political landscape within the Kingdom. The initial wave of Bahrain’s uprising was largely crushed, yet protests have continued on a smaller scale and since then political demands on both sides have hardened. Nonetheless, Bahrain’s revolution has become known as the longest running uprising of the “Arab Spring”.

Early attempts by Crown Prince Salman Bin Hamad Al-Khalifa to negotiate a settlement with the main opposition party, Al-Wefaq, were undermined by the prime minister and the government followed a ferocious crackdown on its opponents. According to a US State Department report, “In 2011, 52 persons died in incidents linked to the unrest, and hundreds more were injured or arrested”, though the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, which often represents the opposition, claims that the number has risen to 96.

Moreover, the methods undertaken by the regime to suppress protests have been grim. Patrick Coburn explained in the Independent:

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.

The hardline approach won support from neighbours; both Saudi Arabia and the UAE sent troops and police across the King Fahd causeway to defend the Khalifa family on March 14, 2011. Further, both the US and UK administrations in particular have lined up behind Bahrain’s establishment and the royal family to different extents.

While the US administration was openly critical of Bahrain’s human rights abuses, it continued to sell arms to the Kingdom throughout the crisis. Furthermore, in 2013 it also invested $580 million in a project to expand its own military bases in the country.

Until now, Britain’s position was less forthright. In particular it was conspicuous by the absence of any significant statements of condemnation. In June, Human Rights Watch’s David Mepham accused Britain of “pretending that real progress is being made in Bahrain“.

Further, a recent parliamentary report chided the government that the Foreign Office “should have bitten the bullet and designated Bahrain as a country of concern“. More importantly, Britain supplied tear gas and other material to the regime during the peak of the crisis, only suspending the export licenses when it came under considerable pressure from lobbyists and human rights groups.

The regime also undertook various efforts to improve its image internationally. These included, ultimately abortive attempts to host a Formula One Grand Prix in 2011 despite the protests, and inviting Kim Kardashian – an American socialite – for a high profile visit in 2012 in order to promote a line of milkshakes.

The government also reached out in more conventional ways. Bahrain – like all Gulf Arab states – depends on the US for its security and has historically sought to deepen ties with Washington historically by making prominent, albeit symbolic, concessions in relations with Israel and efforts to improve the treatment of its own Jewish community.

In 2010, the Crown Prince donated $3 million to the American University in Washington DC and made a high profile visit to it during the peak of the crisis.

In 2012 Bahrain donated £3 million to Sandhurst in order to build a new sports centre and has had ongoing high-level meetings with UK officials and, along with other royals from across the world, joined the Queen for her jubilee dinner in the same year.

Of ‘civilised behaviour’ and the ‘established order’

Hammond’s speech explained the justification for British expansion in the Gulf directly in terms of combating terrorism both in the region and beyond:

In Benghazi and in Mosul, in Yemen and in northern Nigeria, we face a common but shadowy enemy, extremists who seek to hijack Islam to impose their own perverted agenda by fear and by the sword, who reject all norms of civilised behaviour, who challenge all structures of established order.

Of course there should be no doubt that the kinds of enemies that are shared by Britain, Bahrain, and many other states – the likes of Al-Qaeda and ISIS – are truly dangerous foes. But this is not true of everyone who “challenges the structures of the established order”. Indeed, protesters who have faced Bahrain’s oppressive regime, campaigning for their own rights, will see a very different side to what the foreign secretary describes as “civilised behavior”.

Those protesters who are still in the streets of Bahrain’s cities clearly do not want the kind of regime that sits down to dinner with Queen Elizabeth one day while using British and American-made tear gas the next. They don’t want British Navy Bases. They don’t want to build sport centres for British soldiers and they don’t want Kim Kardashian’s milkshakes.

If Philip Hammond and the rest of the British government really understood this they would be seeking to exert their influence on promoting the kinds of “human rights reforms” in their Gulf allies, rather than rewarding those regimes for bad behaviour with a telling silence or symbolic military commitments.

Dr Philip Leech is a visiting research fellow at the Council for British Research in the Levant. He is on twitter and his academic profile is available at

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.