HMS Juffair, Britain’s first permanent naval base in the Gulf since 1971, will soon enhance the capabilities of the British forces in the region and receive the Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers.
Britain’s presence in the Persian Gulf goes back to early nineteenth century as does her relations with Bahrain. The small nation came under British protection after several treaties involving economic, defence and political matters that increased British power in the island’s internal affairs but was not formalised until the Bahrain Order in Council coming into effect in February 1919. Nevertheless, Britain’s position in the small nation was a privileged one, and her influence was paramount since 1868 after an agreement that the ruler of Bahrain could not enter into relationships with others foreign governments without British consent.
By the end of the Great War, the Gulf has become a “British Lake”, for all the relevant enemies of the UK were defeated and its power in the region was left with no serious threat. Thereby, Britain moved to increase her direct control of the area and transferred her main naval base in the Persian Gulf to Bahrain in 1935, just after the start of large-scale oil production.
HMS Jufair opened on 13 April of that same year as part of the port at Mina Salman and its subsequent role during the Second World War was essential in supplying Britain with oil. So important it was that the Italian Air Force bombed the base in the hope of weakening Britain’s war effort, but it remained as a centre of British naval operations throughout the conflict. At the end of the war the United States, by Britain’s invitation, had already established a small presence in the Mina Salman Port that would grow steadily and quickly.
The large British naval facility was to stay operational until 1971 when Bahrain gained its independence, after Britain, with budgetary constraints, considered in 1968 that it was necessary a withdrawal from East of Suez by 1971. After the retreat had been fulfilled the UK kept a lower profile in the region, albeit it continued to hold a significant measure of influence. The United States, with the agreement of the Emir, took control of the entire 10 acres (40,000 m²) base that would become the home of the American Fifth Fleet.
By the late 1970s, the British paramountcy in the Persian Gulf was over, and the UK was left with no permanent base in the area. Despite that, Britain never gave up her commitments in the Gulf, still having treaties of friendship and defence ties with Bahrain, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. British Armed Forces never ceased to pay regular visits to these countries, especially the Royal Navy’s Armilla Patrol that ensured continued British naval presence in the region during the 1980s and 1990s and recently by Operation Kipion with a similar objective.
In 2014, more than four decades after the withdrawal, it was announced that the Royal Navy would have a new permanent base East of Suez at Mina Salman Port to be named conveniently as HMS Juffair or, until its commissioning, Mina Salman Support Facility (MSSF). The base is due to be fully operational by the autumn of 2017 and will able to accommodate up to 300 military personnel or nearly 550 for short periods and vessels of the Royal Navy and Royal Fleet Auxiliary operating in the Gulf.
This new permanent base is a valuable asset for Britain’s military capabilities and shows to her allies commitment to the region’s security and stability. However, HMS Juffair has its limitations, the Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers will not be able to berth directly at the facility while at anchor – the port it’s too shallow for the largest vessels ever built by the Navy – the carriers, like the Americans super-carriers, will have to anchor nearby.
Despite that, the new base still is a step forward to better support British deployments in the region and expanding the Royal Navy’s footprint in the Gulf. According to the Ministry of Defence, Bahrain is already the home of four minesweepers and one RFA command ship and in the future will receive extended deployments of the Type 45 Destroyers and Queen Elizabeth-class carriers. Moreover, HMS Juffair would also be used for operations combating piracy and for aerial surveillances.
Bahrain also hosts a command element, the UK Maritime Component Command (UKMCC), with the primary objective to support the British vessels deployed in the wider region, across the Persian Gulf and the Indian Ocean, and exercising command and control of those ships. The UKMCC daily directs actions of more than 1,000 sailors, Royal Marines and naval aviators.
The new naval base is just one manifestation of the UK presence in the region. The Army and Royal Air Force are looking to play a greater role in the area, and the United Arab Emirates are keen to have a permanent British military presence in their country. The discussion of another permanent foothold is especially relevant for the RAF that has had a Tornado squadron in the region since the early 1990s, and a permanent base would allow giving more assurance to the Air Force to reaffirm its strategies and links to the Gulf.
So, more than four decades after the formal withdrawal from East of Suez, the UK is initiating a return. Despite never being absent, a permanent base in the Gulf signals to Britain’s allies that her presence is going to be increased in the near future and displays a reaffirmation of Britain’s ongoing commitments to the Gulf, particularly to Bahrain.
The small oil-rich kingdom is enthusiastic about that return and quickly assured that they would have a central role for the British Government in search for a suitable permanent naval base in the area; the Bahraini government has paid most of the £15m required to build HMS Juffair.
Thereby, HMS Juffair is the result of many agreements that cemented strong relations between the two kingdoms and its benefits will encompass allowing the Royal Navy to resupply, repair and re-crew in the Persian Gulf, without the need to return to British or foreign ports and therefore reducing costs and saving precious time.
Roughly two hundred years of standing relations between the two nations have established an important partnership for both sides. For the UK, Bahrain is one of her closest allies, a partner in fighting Islamic extremism and now hosts most of the British naval presence in the region. For Bahrain, the UK is an important and reliable ally in a moment that the United States discretely shifts its focus to the Asia-Pacific region to counter China and North Korea.
Therefore, Britain and Bahrain have convergent interests and the desire to co-operate in different fields especially on the matter of defence, security, economy and development. These issues involve co-operation in tackling extremism, piracy and enhancing the safety of both nations.
Considering all that has been said above, Britain still has a relevant position in the Persian Gulf and, thereby, has a significant role to play in the region. HMS Juffair is a step in the right direction, for ensuring the stability of the Gulf and the Middle East as a whole also brings stability and safety to the United Kingdom and its subjects across the world.