The recent announcement that the United Kingdom will increase its defence engagement with the Sultanate of Oman reinforces a historic strategic alliance between the two states, highlighting a relationship dating back to the 18th century.
Robert Clark is British military veteran currently studying at postgraduate level at Kings College London. As a researcher he has experience within both private think tanks and the UK government, including submitting evidence for the Defence Select Committee. His expertise includes UK foreign policy and Anglo-American military relations.
Christopher Galvin has served as a British military officer and is currently pursing postgraduate study at the University of Nottingham, reading International Law. With research interests in international security, Christopher’s previous work has explored UK foreign policy and the role of NATO.
Based around a respect for national sovereignty and access to critical trading routes, it is with one eye to Britain’s global posture post-Brexit which London should seek to build upon the already strong Anglo-Omani alliance, in an effort to re-affirm the UK’s geostrategic position for future years to come.
The establishment of the new UK Joint Logistics Support Base at the deep-water port in Duqm, to be completed by March 2019, allows the UK basing rights for both submarines and, crucially for its size, the new Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers – the flagship of the Royal Navy and a statement of British maritime prestige. The announcement by the UK Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson of the UK base, in addition to the bilateral Memorandum of Understanding and Services Agreement signed last August, underscores the deepening defence engagement emerging between Muscat and London.
With the British historically keen to maintain a presence around the strategic shipping lanes across the Arabian Peninsula, both at the Red Sea and at the Strait of Hormuz, it was with a view to the protection of India, the crown of the British Empire, which Britain regarded its relations with Oman. Relations between the two states were strengthen during the British defence of the Sultanate throughout the Cold War period, in particular the SAS and Royal Air Force campaigns during the 1950s against rebels financed and supported by both the Soviet Union and China.
Fast forward half a century into a region witnessing an increasingly assertive China, which shows little regard for international norms and values, in which approximately 80% of global oil is transported, and it is with one eye to the Indo-Pacific, and to the emerging markets in east Asia, which the UK must firmly look, ensuring both economic growth and, crucially, maintaining its central role in upholding the rules-based international order. Whilst the UK maintains sovereign territory on Cyprus, including at RAF Akrotiri, and military basing rights at both the UAE and Bahrain, the addition of the port facilities at Duqm solidifies a triangulation of British power projection across the Middle East.
This triangulation of British military bases is important for maintaining national interests further afield. Duqm, crucially, located at the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula, allows the Royal Navy a springboard into the wider Indo-Pacific region, fulfilling several key strategic objectives. The necessity of maintaining maritime freedom of navigation patrols; ensuring access of the vulnerable shipping lanes crucial to global trade; and conducting anti-piracy operations with international allies are all of national interest to the UK. These interests should be reinforced once the UK leaves the European Union, seeking to strengthen old alliances whilst establishing new ones throughout the Indo-Pacific; a region of increasing geopolitical significance including the prominent maritime choke points and strategic shipping lanes.
Due to the current geopolitical realities in the region, states are pursuing their own national interests, often in direct competition with one another. China’s pursuit for hegemony within the Indo-Pacific has become profoundly evident in recent years – particularly Beijing’s willingness to deploy its military to project its power within the region. Coupled with, and often at times in support of this ambition, China has shown a reluctance to adhere to the rules of international law; increasingly displaying a Machiavellian approach to its regional foreign policy, to ultimately enhance its global position.
In 2013 the Philippines forwarded a claim to the United Nations Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) regarding China’s illegal acquisition of maritime features within the South China Sea. This case set a significant legal precedent, where in 2016 the court unanimously concluded that China had indeed acted illegally. The PCA made clear that Chinese assertions regarding intrinsic historical rights to resources within the region, specifically those within the ‘9-dash line’, were ill-founded and held no legitimate legal grounding. However, with the absence of a suitable mechanism for the enforcing the PCA’s legally binding decision, China has been able to act in a manner which best suits its intentions. Consequently, China publicly rebuked the PCA’s conclusion and disconcertingly, adopted a retaliatory stance with belligerence in defiance of this globally important and eminent legal institution.
Such behaviour corroborates Beijing’s willingness to defy the rules-based system in order to enhance its own geopolitical position within the Indo-Pacific region. Although such an approach to the global world order may be perceived as unsurprising, it should be noted that China has not always been so happy to defy the institutions of international law. Previously China had largely been regarded as an abiding state of international law, namely that of sovereignty and the principle of non-interference, lesser that of universal human rights. However, with disregard for the PCA’s landmark ruling, it is clear that China has adopted a new approach in its international relations.
Importantly, it is not just the South China Sea where China has displayed a propensity to display such tactics. This has been evident throughout the Indo-Pacific. Specifically, this regards the String of Pearls theory, a geopolitical concept referring to China’s ambitions and conduct in the Indian Ocean. Here, China has utilised a synthesis of military assets and commercial outlets to dominate sea lines of communication stretching from the Chinese mainland to Port Sudan on the Red Sea. Although Beijing has strongly argued that its actions are nothing more than necessary moves to encourage and enhance trade partnerships, commentators have disagreed. Instead, such behaviour exposes a clear geopolitical agenda to dominate major maritime choke points, furthering China’s military reach within the Indo-Pacific, further risking regional instability.
The ability for the UK to launch a revamped and modernised Royal Navy into such a clearly important region, premised on the necessity for ensuring an inclusive Indo-Pacific for the maintenance of global trade flows, is of such significance to British national interests, especially post-Brexit, that the deepening Anglo-Omani partnership is an example of what a truly Global Britain strategy should seek to encompass.