ISIS, Iran and regional instability have motivated the UK to build a permanent £15 million pound military base in Bahrain, according to the British government. But is that all there is to it? And what else is at stake?
Firstly, it is a mystery how Britain will be able to afford the base in the long term, or even the warships she intends to put in it, given the country is meant to be broke.
For years now it has been reported that the new aircraft carriers will have no aircraft to carry. The initial idea of sharing the ships with the French has given way to the hope that a benevolent US Marine Corps might spare a warplane or three in a kind of Top Gun timeshare deal. Whatever the eventual arrangements, none of the threats cited are going to be coherently addressed with a new naval base in Bahrain.
The so-called Islamic State is a basically landlocked, increasingly contained and lightly armed force of a few tens of thousands.
Iran is not at odds with the West on the topic of the Daesh; it is already sharing in the task of bombing them at the request of the Iraqi government, no less.
The regional instability can be attributed to outside tinkering – much of it British and much of it military. More of the same is unlikely to defuse the region’s problems.
Human rights campaigners say the base deal is a reward for British “silence” on the Bahrain regime’s excesses. But in truth Britain was never silent. It is a vocal supporter, loudly echoing claims by the rulers of its backwards former protectorate that reform is under way.
At other times British policing expertise has been central to the obscuring and continuation of the repression.
During the Arab Spring, British attempts to cover for the Bahraini regime’s violent repression of pro-democracy activists were shameless. Yet that was when the Royal Navy was only parking a handful of minesweepers at the Mina Salman port.
When Britain is relying on the Sunni regime to keep Her Majesty’s destroyers and her ridiculous empty carriers bobbing at the docks, the suppression and torture of the island’s Shia majority will be set in stone.
There will also be broader sectarian repercussions. At a time when Tehran and Shia militias in Iraq are bulwarks against ISIS, this amounts to trading a mooring in the Gulf for the privilege of alienating millions of their co-religionists. All of whom have a vested interest in the demise of ISIS.
Politically, strategically and economically, the move is a bad one.
But mentioned nowhere in the rationale handed to and duly printed but the UK press is the fact that in the global grand theatre, the Middle East is just the trapdoor.
These days all roads lead to China. Well, not literally, but as in the case of Africa – the continent through which the pivot to Asia is swivelling – there is much to be played for, and already being played for, between China and her Euro-American rivals in the Gulf.
Relations between China and Bahrain were late in blooming, but lately appear warm. High-level state visits have been exchanged and many a back has been patted.
This has not gone unnoticed by the British establishment, though the burgeoning relationship has been sorely underreported here.
This is the very same China which exercises it’s navy in the Indian Ocean, which has pioneered it’s own brand of fewerstrings attached imperialism in Africa (10) and which is so influential in Afghanistan these days.
The British are expanding east of Suez for a reason. For all the claims to the contrary, there is nothing existentially threatening about ISIS given that the British ruling class tends not to ride the London Underground.
China is increasingly in a position to challenge the West, and its activities better explain Britain’s suddenly announced interest in investing in an expanded, long-term naval installation east of the Suez than concerns about ISIS.
Photographs courtesy of Brian Harrington Spier. Published under a Creative Commons license.