Last week I reported for MEMO on Britain's new base in Bahrain, the island kingdom in the Gulf that has been subject to civil unrest and protests since the outbreak of the Arab Spring in December 2010.
I noted in the article that the base would seem to provide little in terms of additional strategic capacity for the British in the region (or their allies), but its creation could potentially be damaging to Britain's interests in the long run. The British government would be seen to be supporting an embattled, minority regime that has been recorded using all sorts of brutal tactics to suppress popular protests by a majority of the population in search of its own basic political rights.
However, since I wrote that article I have not been able to stop thinking about the situation. There are too many unanswered questions to leave this alone. Why does the phrase "East of Suez" keep being used? Why would the British government really risk all the bad press and other potential consequences for no serious improvement in strategic advantage? Is this, seriously, an effort to recapture the old days of empire?
When the British left the region in 1971, they did so with a final withdrawal from another military base, in Aden, south Yemen. Earlier that year they had formally transferred HMS Juffair, the Royal Navy's base in Bahrain, to the United States, though the US Military had been using it since 1949. It went on to be renamed Naval Support Activity Bahrain and became the home for both the US Fifth Fleet and the US Navy's Central Command.
Britain's withdrawal from the Middle East is often remembered, in the UK at least, as representative of a time of retrenchment and decline led by a left-wing Labour government, an image that still carries some weight today, as noted by Con Coughlin in The Telegraph: "In 1968, Labour made the disastrous decision to close all our military garrisons east of the Suez canal." Coughlin criticised not only the withdrawal itself but also the unceremonious manner in which it was executed: "When Denis Healey, then defence secretary, ordered the closure of British bases in the Gulf, he did so with the characteristically ungracious remark that he did not intend Britain to act as a nanny to the newly independent Arab states." According to Coughlin, Britain's allies in the region felt abandoned by the Royal Navy's departure.
East of Suez
In announcing the opening of the Bahrain base Defence Secretary Philip Hammond sought clearly to tackle that image of decline that so bothers Coughlin. In particular his use of the evocative term "east of Suez", borrowed from a poem by Rudyard Kipling, was to use a phrase that came to be associated with Labour's withdrawals in the 1960s-70s (though, according to historian P. L. Pham, the various withdrawals were more-or-less independent decisions that never really comprised an overall coherent strategy).
There is, though, something missing from the picture; the British military never really left the Gulf in any case. Indeed, as W. Taylor Fain, an Associate Professor at the University of North Carolina, has documented in detail, during the Second World War the British government had actually predicted that it would face such difficulties and worked explicitly towards persuading an initially reluctant America to take over its role as guarantor of Gulf security.
Though Britain's defence of the Gulf, or, at least, its support for some of the more unpleasant governments in the region, did not go without being questioned, even by top British officials. The Chancellor of the Exchequer between 1947 and 1950, Stafford Cripps, asked famously: "Why do we support reactionary, selfish and corrupt governments in the Middle East instead of leaders who have the interests of their people at heart?"
Ultimately it was not Britain's persuasion but fear of Soviet advancement that would lead to greater US involvement in the Gulf. Whatever the inspiration was, looking back with hindsight, what started with small post-war American deployments, mostly in British bases, would grow to an enormous scale. In the words of David Vine: "In short, there is almost no way to overemphasize how thoroughly the US military now covers the region with bases and troops. This infrastructure of war has been in place for so long and is so taken for granted that Americans rarely think about it and journalists almost never report on the subject."
Nevertheless, the British continued to support such regimes, and not just by attempting to marshal in the Americans to take their place. They used their own continued military presence.
Britain's presence in the Gulf
In fact, even before the new base in Bahrain was announced Britain already had Royal Navy ships based at Mina Salman in Bahrain, though in this case historical precedent was reversed, as they were using American facilities. Furthermore, at the end of 2014 there were RAF personnel stationed in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait and the UAE, as well as Bahrain.
The British have, of course, also maintained a strong relationship in terms of supplying arms to Gulf regimes. The most notable example is the Al-Yamamah deal between BAE Systems and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia; it remains Britain's largest ever export deal, worth hundreds of billions in money and oil to the UK. Even so, the deal was beset by controversy, including the dramatic decision by the Blair government to terminate a Serious Fraud Office investigation into its details, due to "the national interest". Britain also continued to supply some arms to Bahrain during the civil protests in 2011 and it looks likely to sell more weapons to the UAE, including new Euro-Fighter Typhoons, in the near future.
In terms of more standard deployments, Michael Clarke, Gareth Stansfield and Saul Kelly all but predicted recent events in a report for the Royal United Services Institute, in April 2013: "This may not yet be declared government policy; indeed, the government may prefer not to plunge into a public debate about it. But the UK appears to be approaching a decision point where a significant strategic reorientation of its defence and security towards the Gulf is both plausible and logical."
For Clarke, Stansfield and Kelly, the deployment would not be like those of the old imperial past. Rather, it would be "smarter", with "facilities, defence agreements, rotation of training, transit and jumping-off points for forces that aim to be more adaptable and agile as they face the post-Afghanistan years."
The rationale for such a deployment would be two-pronged, though one would be more significant than the other. First, by taking a more active role in the Gulf, Britain would pick up some of the slack from American forces as they "pivot" towards Asia. The second, more important, role for the British would be aimed at "deterring Iran". This fits with the overall approach of the UK-US towards Iran since the Islamic Revolution of 1979 and seems likely to continue even if, from some quarters, it may look as if the divide between Iran and the West may be narrowing.
Most importantly, however, are the predictions made by RUSI (also found in the media) that Britain would be basing more and more resources to the Gulf. Indeed, the report contends that Britain's shift is "more evolutionary than revolutionary". The RUSI report concludes: "Recent efforts by the UK government constitute a reformation of the country's engagement with Gulf states. This reformation, or perhaps more accurately a rationalisation, has seen the government, at a high level, bring together a range of ad-hoc engagements in Gulf states – in the trade, defence and wider security spheres – into some form of coherent strategy."
The reasoning behind all of this, as explained by the architect of Britain's military return to the Gulf, Lieutenant General Simon Mayall, in a speech to the International Institute for Strategic Studies last year, is essentially that the British military establishment views events in the contemporary Middle East through a lens of Europe's own history. Drawing comparisons with the French revolution, its extremely bloody aftermath and centuries of sectarian, religious and ideological conflict in Europe, Mayall arrived, albeit, not without some humility, at the pessimistic conclusion that "we had better settle in for the long hall".
What has Kipling got to do with it?
RUSI's report ends by quoting the now infamous lines from Kipling's poem Mandalay:
"Ship me somewheres east of Suez, where the best is like the worst,
Where there aren't no Ten Commandments an' a man can raise a thirst"
The authors could just as easily have thrown in another line from the same poem that expresses, more directly, the vision of the world that Kipling was trying to show. In this we hear the voice of an idealised native, a "Burma girl", expressing her wish for the British military to return (rather like Coughlin as he described the Gulf regime's desire for the British military to return):
"Come you back, you British soldier; come you back to Mandalay!"
Kipling, of course, was a talented poet and storyteller. In many ways his work captures a particular sense of the world and a vision of "manly" stoicism that has remained very popular today. He was also, solidly, an apologist for British Imperialism.
The late Professor Edward Said, author of the profoundly important Orientalism, a major post-colonial critique of English, French and American art and literature. Said is often, falsely, portrayed as a mere cheerleader for the "non-west" against "the West". He takes Kipling on while acknowledging his talent and skill as a writer. With particular reference to Kipling's vision of the "White Man", the explicit "star of the show" in the poet's work, Said argued: "Being a White Man was therefore an idea and a reality. It involved a reasoned position towards both the white and the non-white worlds… speaking in a certain way, behaving according to a code of regulations, and even feeling certain things not others… In the institutional forms it took (colonial governments, consular corps, commercial establishments) it was an agency for the expression, diffusion, and implementation of policy towards the world… Being a White Man, in short, was a very concrete manner of being-in-the world, a way of taking hold of reality, language, and thought."
In other words, for Said, Kipling's work not only describes but also seeks to justify a vision of the world that is divided between peoples of different races and creeds on a hierarchical basis. The "White Man" is what he is, not only because he defines himself in opposition to everyone else but also because of what he does; how he acts; and how he sees justification for those actions.
The "White Man" may not even see evidence of his own privileged status The institutions that enforce his way of being and his privilege will tend to blend into the background, becoming "normal" and then, along with other benefits of this status, be taken for granted. Consider how Vine describes American journalistic attitudes to the plethora of US forces in the region, as noted above.
For Kipling these reasons were a sense of simple righteousness of his cultural heritage, embodied in the masculinity and sense of adventure of his characters. However, for the modern era, Kipling's language is clearly only acceptable when confined to a few quoted lines or phrases. Instead, prevalent now is the vocabulary of security and necessity, but we would do well to remember that Said also suggested that: "Kipling himself could not merely have happened; the same is true of his White Man. Such ideas and their authors emerge out of complex historical and cultural circumstances."
In just the same way, the vision of the world that Mayall and Coughlin describe has not simply "happened", nor has Britain's new base in Bahrain, or its arms deals. Rather, it is built on a particular interpretation of history; a very selective narrative of the legacy of Britain's role in the Gulf. It assumes a perspective that, ultimately, rests on a similar hierarchical view to Kipling's, within which UK and US actions are to be trusted, while the actions of others are progressively less trustworthy as the identity of the actors themselves become less similar to the British or Americans. Thus, if Kipling and Said can teach us anything about this, it is that it is particularly important to challenge the official or mainstream narratives that seek to justify or explain actions like deploying more British forces overseas, selling arms to oppressive regimes or building new bases in the Gulf.
There is little doubt in my mind that, with all its flaws, the pessimism of old soldiers like Mayall is an improvement on the radical lunacy of the neo-conservatives and their visions of transforming the world through invading Iraq and torturing their enemies. As such, while it would be wrong to dismiss Mayall's argument without due consideration, it is essential to view these plans within a more complete historical context. If we do so, we might get a little bit closer to understanding why Britain is re-formalising its presence "east of Suez".
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.