Operation Kipion is just one of a plethora of British commitments to the Persian Gulf over the decades.
From the years as the ‘British Lake’ to the 1971 withdrawal, the region was never fully forgotten by Britain. As tensions grow, British historical involvement and current military presence in the Persian Gulf are once again sources of discussion.
The British presence in the Persian Gulf has its origins in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. During this period, interests were primarily commercial and represented mainly through sporadic British merchants. As the relevance of the British territories in the Indian subcontinent expanded and became a crucial part of the imperial system of the eighteenth and nineteenth-century, Britain’s interests in the region increased.
During the Napoleonic Wars, piracy led mainly by the Al-Qasimi, was a significant problem. As Britain’s trade with India increased, the losses to raids and sacks were demanding measures from the British Government in India. A military expedition was sent in 1809, which force the Al-Qasimi to cease attacks on British vessels. Despite its success, the Campaign of 1809 effect was short-lived. Having many commitments during the Napoleonic Wars, most ships were needed elsewhere.
In 1819, a new expedition headed by the Royal Navy was sent to the region. It crushed the Qasimi confederation and resulted in the ‘General Maritime Treaty of 1820’, formally named ‘General Treaty for the Cessation of Plunder and Piracy by Land and Sea, Dated February 5, 1820’. This treaty cemented the base of British policy in the Persian Gulf. Until as late as the 1870s, agreements between Britain and regional sheikdoms were primarily concerned with the elimination of piracy and slave trade.
The nature of these treaties would change with the ‘Exclusivity Agreements’ of the 1880s and early 1890s. By these decades, Britain was already a long-established power in the Gulf, and its interventions were felt mainly when military conflicts emerged between the sheikdoms and threatened to eliminate British allies in the region. One example of British involvement, which led to an early case of Exclusivity Agreement, was the threats to Bahrain in the 1850s and 1860s.
During these years, the possibility of Bahrain being dominated by the Ottomans, Persians or the Wahhabis was a major concern. Eventually, the Ruler of Bahrain, Muhammad bin Khalifa (1843–68), decided for military action against the Wahhabis. Britain opposed the move fearing further instability in the area and secretly proposed to defend the Sheikdom in case of external aggression. When the Ruler refused, Britain sent the Royal Navy to intervene and blockade his fleet, forcing him to call off his military campaign. Considering Bahrain a strategic partner, the British Government proposed to protect the Sheikdom in exchange for Bahrain not to engage in ‘persecution of war, piracy and slavery at sea’. Bahrain accepted the terms, and in 1861 an agreement was celebrated between the two governments. Further treaties were signed in 1880 and 1892 placing foreign relations and the defence of Bahrain in British control.
The ‘Perpetual Truce of Peace and Friendship’ of 1861 and the further two treaties had the same general pattern of the Exclusive Agreement firmed with the ‘Trucial States’ in 1892. The Agreement had three main points. Firstly, it bounded the regional rulers not to enter into ‘any agreement or correspondence with any Power other than the British Government’.
Secondly, it prohibited the Rulers to consent residence within their territories to agents of any other government without British authorisation. Lastly, the sheikdoms were not allowed to ‘cede, sell, mortgage or otherwise give for occupation’ any part of their territories, save to the British Government. Effectively, the Exclusive Agreement put the foreign policy of the sheikdoms of the ‘Trucial States’ under British control as it had done with Bahrain throughout the two previous decades.
Therefore, in the second half of the nineteenth century, Britain was adding ‘protected’ territories to its security umbrella. These British Protectorates were a result of a tendency of the small Arab Sheikdoms siding with Britain since 1820. Having British protection and subsides the Rulers had no concerns that an external or internal force would topple them without British approval. Furthermore, the 1890s treaties were a direct response to the increasing commercial interests in the Persian Gulf, especially in the Trucial States, of other nations, including Germany and France. The proximity of the Gulf sheikdoms towards British India and the Suez Canal influenced the governments in Calcutta and London to create a ‘safe zone’ in the Gulf.
Thus, at least partially, the British policy in the region was a reflection of the imperial concern of ‘keeping open the lines of communication’ between British India and the UK by avoiding the interference of other Great Power in the area. Ultimately, the result was that at the beginning of the Great War, Bahrain, Kuwait, the Trucial States and Muscat and Oman were – with varying degrees – de facto British Protectorates. In 1916, Qatar would officially join the group. It was during this context of an increased British shift from commercial to strategic interests that the Arabian side of the Gulf would discovery the resource that would transform the region.
Oil was discovered in Bahrain in the early 1930s after years of failed attempts to gather resources to search elsewhere in the Arabian Peninsula. The first oil well of Bahrain was also the first of the Arabian side of the Gulf; oil spurted from this well in October 1931. In the following years, reserves were found in Qatar, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. Even though the production in the Protectorates was relatively small if compared to the biggest producer and exporter of the period (the United States), it was essential to Britain. It contributed to easy its dependency on petroleum imports from outside the Empire.
During the interwar years, especially in the 1920s, antagonists to British power in the Gulf were defeated or were incapable of checking Britain in the region. Germany and its fleet were no longer threats to British commercial and strategic interests. The Ottoman Empire was dismembered, and Iraq, Jordan and the Palestine mandates were under British rule. The Russians, although allies until 1917, were engulfed in civil war leaving more space for Britain in the region. Comparable to the 1880s and 1890s, in the 1920s and early 1930s the Persian Gulf was again a ‘British Lake’. However, Britain’s unique position in the Gulf would suffer from the challenge posed by the Second World War and the subsequent economic problems caused by an enormous war effort.
In the 1930s, although the Royal Navy had access to ports protected by the UK, locations with infrastructure for large vessels could only be found in Basra or further away in Aden and Bombay. The need for a permanent and adequate base led to an agreement with Bahrain in 1934.
A naval base was to be built as part of the port at Mina Salman. HMS Jufair opened in 1935 and became the Royal Navy’s main base in the region. The Italian Air Force bombed the facilities during the Second World War as part of an unsuccessful effort to cut-off one of the British sources of oil in the Gulf.
Britain’s economic problems marked the decades after the conflict. Its position in the world stage as the ‘hegemonic power’ disappeared. The country was supplanted by the United States and the Soviet Union, although it remained as a ‘superpower’ until the Suez Crisis in 1956. Britain’s economic weakness contributed to its disengagement from regions once in the heart of the Empire. Firstly, the totality of Indian subcontinent received its independence in 1947-1948. After Suez, the decolonisation process was applied to the British colonies in Africa.
Within this context, the Government in London would soon review its presence in the Persian Gulf. One of the main reasons that prompted Britain towards the Gulf was the protection of the lines of communication with India and other possession ‘East of Suez’. In the early 1960s, India was an independent country, the Suez Canal was nationalised, and other relevant territories were also sovereign nations or heading towards independence. Furthermore, Britain was facing severe budget issues. So, the cost-effectiveness of the maintenance of an empire in the Persian Gulf to safeguard Britain’s interests in the area was strongly questioned. In January 1968, the decision to withdraw from the region was formally announced by the British Government.
The termination of the British protection over the Trucial States, Bahrain and Qatar meant that Britain would cease to be a territorial power in the region; Kuwait and Muscat and Oman received their independence in the early 1960s. In December 1971, the British protectorates achieved independence. Meanwhile, the permanent Royal Navy presence in Bahrain ended. The HMS Jufair naval base was closed, and the entire facility was immediately taken by the United States, which had a small presence there since the Second World War.
The 1971 ‘withdrawal’ of the Gulf and other regions ‘East of Suez’ was not the end of the British presence. Despite the end of the protectorates and the closure of the naval base at Mina Salman, Britain maintained a regular naval deployment to the area. In 1980, tensions between Iraq and Iran resulted in the costly Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988). In response to an increasingly dangerous regional scene, Britain formally established a naval formation, the Armilla Patrol. Designated to carry on patrol duties to ensure the rights of freedom of navigation and the flow of oil and trade, Armilla Patrol was constituted mainly by mine countermeasures vessels. Destroyers and frigates transiting the area for operations in neighbouring regions regularly reinforced the operation.
The Patrol would last for 31 years, from 1980 to 2011. It was more than three decades of keeping a British military presence in the Gulf ‘24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year’. It is worth mentioning that during the Falklands War, British vessels were relieved by the Royal New Zealand Navy freeing more ships for service in the South Atlantic. Later, the British involvement in the invasion of Iraq would see the number of British vessels in the Persian Gulf rise to over 30, including auxiliaries.
In 2011, the ongoing ‘Operation Kipion’ replaced the Armilla Patrol. The objectives of Kipion were no different from its predecessor as the 2011 changes were mostly of nomenclature. According to the Royal Navy, Kipion is the continuation of the UK ‘long-standing maritime presence in the Gulf and the Indian Ocean’. Its commitments to ‘promoting peace and stability in the region, as well as ensuring the safe flow of oil and trade’ were the same objectives that the Armilla Patrol pursued during its existence.
Currently, the British naval presence is represented by a Type 23 Frigate (HMS Montrose), two Hunt-class mine countermeasures vessels (HMS Ledbury and HMS Middleton), two Sandown-class minehunters (HMS Bangor and HMS Blyth), and one Bay-class landing ship dock (RFA Cardigan Bay). A Type 45 Destroyer, HMS Duncan is en route to the region to take over from HMS Montrose. Near-future deployments include RFA Wave Knight and HMS Kent.
However, Op. Kipion would witness a new British approach towards the Persian Gulf and the Middle East as a whole. In the decade before the Armilla Patrol, Britain was in the aftermath of its territorial retreat from the Empire. Throughout the world, British military bases were being handed back to the recently independent nations, and the scenario in the Gulf was no different. Although Britain maintained a deployment in the region to defend its interests, considerations for greater involvement ‘East of Suez’ meet no relevant support in London after the 1971 withdrawal. Within this context, the 1981 Defence White Paper aiming to reduce the Government’s expenditure contributed to a policy less centred on amphibious and expeditionary operations.
After roughly four decades since the withdrawal, Britain would embark on a new approach. In December 2014, the British and Bahraini governments announced that the Royal Navy would re-establish a permanent naval base east of Suez at the Mina Salman Port. The construction for the new HMS Jufair or ‘Mina Salman Port Facility’ began in later November 2015, with costs of £15 million paid mainly by the Bahraini Government. According to the then Foreign Secretary, Philip Hammond, the naval base was planned to ensure ‘Britain’s sustained presence east of Suez’ and to work close to British allies to ‘reinforce stability’ in the area.
Beyond that, HMS Jufair would allow more prolonged and more numerous deployments to the Gulf. As stated by the Royal Navy, ‘Bahrain offers much-improved facilities over the existing jetty and warehouses, better support for any British warship operating in the region – up to the new Queen Elizabeth-class carriers – and provide welcome relief for crews of the four RN minehunters based in Bahrain’. Concerning the support for the Queen Elizabeth carriers, the Ministry of Defence declares that the carriers will be able to utilise HMS Jufair’s facilities. However, ‘due to drought constraints’ the two vessels will have to anchor in the vicinity and will not berth directly alongside the port itself.
In April 2018, the Naval Support Facility was officially opened and immediately became the hub of the Royal Navy’s operations in the Persian Gulf, Indian Ocean and the Red Sea. The base in Bahrain was the first new overseas establishment of the Royal Navy in half a century. More than a symbolic move, the base is a display that the UK is committed to its regional allies in the Gulf and the increased protection of shipments passing the Strait of Ormuz. It also indicates that the UK is willing to regain ground in the region as the United States slowly shifts its attention to the Indo-Pacific.
The decision to open a military base in Bahrain was followed by an agreement with another relevant British partner in the area. Geographically, the Sultanate of Oman is strategically near the entrance of the Persian Gulf, and its exclave of Musandam is located on the south part of the Strait of Hormuz, giving Oman partial control of the narrow passage. Moreover, Oman’s location allows a military base that can sustain the projection of power into the Indian Ocean – alongside the facilities at Diego Garcia, in British Indian Ocean Territory -, the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea.
Therefore, in 2016 the British and Omani governments announced that an agreement was reached between the two countries for the development of the Duqm Port complex and eventually the establishment of a British naval facility. One year later, in mid-2017, during an official meeting between the then British Defence Secretary, Sir Michael Fallon, and his Omani counterpart, the signing of the ‘Memorandum of Understanding and Services Agreement’ secured the use of facilities at Duqm ahead of the completion of a new ‘UK Joint Logistics Support Base’ (UKJLSB) at the port. The maritime base will become the first British base in the country since 1977 when the RAF bases at the Masirah Island and Salalah were handed back to the Omani forces.
According to the British Government, the Joint Logistics Support Base will give Britain ‘a strategically important and permanent base east of Suez, but outside of the Gulf’. Despite being ‘outside of the Gulf’, its location can be used to quickly reinforce the British forces in the neighbouring regions, which include the troops based at HMS Jufair in Bahrain. It worth noting that one of the strategic considerations taken into account was precisely the geographical location of Duqm. Located on the Arabian Sea and near the geopolitically sensible areas, the port is immune to the closure of the Strait of Ormuz. So, the Duqm base would be less affected in case of the threats made by Iran to close the choke-point come into fruition.
The main asset of the new base is its significant infrastructure for British vessels. The Royal Navy will have at its disposal dry dock capability able to accommodate submarines and the Queen Elizabeth-class of aircraft carriers, the largest warships of the Navy. This dry dock capability for submarines and carriers is going to turn Duqm into the main naval base operated solely by the UK beyond the Suez Canal. Furthermore, the British Government states that the Support Base in Oman will provide Britain ‘a permanent training facility in addition to a key military logistics centre in the Gulf’.
The British Armed Forces tested the UK Joint Logistics Support Base during the ‘Exercise Saif Saree 3’, which was held in Oman in October and November 2018. The Exercise involved 5,500 British personnel of the three branches of the Armed Forces. The agreements with the Sultanate established that the facilities would be supplied by the Oman Drydock Company and Babcock International on a 37-lease. According to the Ministry of Defence, the long lease would make facilities ‘available for use long into the future, allowing the UK to maintain a presence in the region’.
Finally, after the new British bases in Bahrain and Oman, it is worth mentioning the Royal Air Force presence in Qatar. The RAF Al Udeid is an outpost at the Qatari Al Udeid Air Base. The base is shared with the United States Air Force and Qatari Air Force. Since 2006, the airbase is the headquarters for the RAF’s No. 83 Expeditionary Air Group and the UK air operations in the Persian Gulf. The activities include support for Operation Shader and Operation Kipion.
‘Shader’ is the code-name given to Britain’s ongoing military contribution against the Islamic State. Between 2005 and 2009, the airbase was extensively used by the RAF as part of the British participation in the Iraq War, code-named ‘Operation Telic’. Alongside RAF Akrotiri in the British Sovereign Bases Areas in Cyprus, RAF Al Udeid is one of Britain’s most relevant staging points for air operations in the Middle East.
Therefore, considering all that has been exposed, the British presence in the Persian Gulf is centuries old. During the nineteenth century and first half of the twentieth, British power in the region was hardly challenged. However, facing economic restraints, Britain was forced to rethink its privileged position ‘East of Suez’ during the late 1960s. The protectorates were replaced by the Royal Navy’s deployment to enforce freedom of navigation and trade in the form of the Armilla Patrol, and the British permanent military facilities were handed back to Bahrain. The scene would change when the UK decided to enhance its presence in the Middle East. The results are two new bases in the area, marking a partial reversion of the policies that led to the 1971 withdrawal.
The agreements with Bahrain and Oman come at a time that the British Government is looking for a way to improve Britain’s capabilities to defend its interests and allies in the area. The the new military facilities give Britain the necessary support to deploy larger forces for more extended periods than before. Another relevant point is the threat posed by Iran to British and American strategic and commercial interests in the region. An increasingly hostile relationship between Iran and the United States might turn the new bases into central assets to British strategy towards an eventual crisis escalation in the Gulf. In this context, HMS Jufair in Bahrain and the Joint Logistics Support Base in Oman have the potential to increase Britain’s readiness to defend its interests and the long-standing regional allies.
In short, this new network of facilities enables Britain to present a more assertive position than previously displayed. The seizure of at least one the British-flagged tanker in the area only reaffirms the necessity of having adequate overseas infrastructure to support and protect the global interests of a global player.
The seizure also comes at a moment to remind that the effects of years of defence cuts might have gone too far for a minimal budget return. After all, the new bases are complementary to traditional forces.
If the British Government is willing to maintain Britain’s status as a global power with capabilities to defend its interests, acknowledging that the Royal Navy – and British forces as a whole – are in need of attention and that the ‘peace dividend’ of the 1990s is over ought to be a start to address the increasing external challenges the country is facing.