UK Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond used the Bahraini Government-funded Manama dialogue on the weekend to announce the signing of a Defence Agreement with the Kingdom of Bahrain.
It is sometimes difficult to discern substance from symbolism in these types of announcements. In terms of substance, there is not much to it. The money being outlayed for an upgrade of port facilities (£15 million) is not massive and the permanent facilities don't appear to be extensive. In addition, the Bahraini Government is footing the bill for the improvements, with HM Government paying for the running costs.
There are many reasons why the UK would be happy to ink such a deal. Here are a few:
- The US 5th Fleet HQ is already there so it's not as if the UK is breaking new ground. The UK has also had a permanent mine-countermeasures presence in Bahrain for over a decade and the UK naval component command is likely constrained in real estate terms, so additional berthing for capital ships makes sense if you think you're going to be involved in the region for the long term.
- The Gulf is a very happy hunting ground for defence companies and a grand announcement reinforcing London's concern for the security of the Gulf states that is heavy on symbolism but light on substance is a great marketing tool for British defence industry. That said, France's opening of a military base in the UAE in 2009 did nothing for its bid to build nuclear reactors there, which went to the South Koreans, or its attempts to sell their Rafale fighters, which have gone to no one.
- In the event of a successful conclusion to the Iranian talks with the P5+1, continued nervousness on the part of the Gulf states regarding Iranian intentions (particularly in the Gulf) can be assuaged somewhat by guarantees of continued interest such as this.
- Bahrain has provided fighter jets in support of the anti-ISIS coalition engaging targets in Syria. This could be seen as a tangible form of payoff.
- There are nearly 200,000 UK nationals in the Gulf and significant business interests, so anything that improves the ability to project military forces into the region is a sensible move. This announcement of support for Bahrain also sends the 'right' signals to Manama's two closest allies (Saudi Arabia and the UAE) that the UK means business in military and commercial terms.
On the face of it then, the case for a modest military commitment appears strong. In a region in flux, it is sensible that London postures for future possible interventions.
Unfortunately, one of the (many) reasons the region is in flux is because of the poor state of governance that results in people being disenfranchised and persecuted because of their faith or ethnicity, and that autocracies of various hues crack down on dissent through violence rather than dialogue. Given that Bahrain is one of the states which has shown a complete unwillingness to undertake any meaningful political reform and continues to suppress the political demands of its Shi'a majority, London risks sending the wrong signal that it rewards political stability more than it supports political or social equality.
Returning to the east of Suez (if that's what it is) also means a return to pragmatism rather than principle in UK foreign policy.