Brexit and East of Suez
As the UK heads to a No-Deal Brexit by Oct. 31, there are questions around Britain’s defense policy and capabilities. With numerous hot-button issues ongoing throughout the world, one needs to ask where London is headed especially within the doctrine of East of Suez. Given the course that Brexit is taking, East of Suez is assuming a new meaning.
It needs to be remembered that, in January 1968, British Prime Minister Harold Wilson announced the UK would permanently withdraw its troops from the “East of Suez.” The UK abandoned its military bases in the Middle East and Southeast Asia soon thereafter, giving rise to most of the Gulf states of today.
We need to recall, too, that Britain’s 1968 decision to retreat from the East of Suez was prompted by financial limitations, military overstretching, and changes within domestic politics. The struggling economy, struck by the 1967 devaluation of the pound, could hardly afford a continued presence in the region.
Fifty years later, Britain is reversing this policy, shifting back to the East of Suez despite the Brexit debate. Don’t let the smoke and mirrors of the current information environment disguise what is going on. British military officials are making regular visits to the region and meeting key defense principals throughout the Gulf states. This military-to-military relationship continues apace and, given the threat from Iran, is necessary to coordinate responses to any possible aggressive moves from it beyond the seizing of three vessels to date.
In 2016, then-Prime Minister Theresa May stated that: “We will create a permanent presence in the region ... with more British warships, aircraft and personnel deployed on operations in the Gulf than in any other part of the world.” She identified Oman and Bahrain as the most important states for Britain’s new presence.
Despite May’s tearful end, the UK’s increasingly assertive role in the Near East constitutes specific military deployment and defense cooperation. Britain’s active military presence in the Gulf is built on the role it has played in the region from the Iraq war to fighting Daesh. East of Suez continues as Britain’s naval base in Bahrain marks the first permanent base East of Suez in 50 years. Royal Navy personnel are part of the UK Maritime Component Command, directing Britain’s minesweepers and frigates around the Gulf, in coordination with the far larger US Navy 5th Fleet headquarters. Moreover, the HMS Juffair naval facility in Bahrain’s Mina Salman Port can host 500 Royal Navy personnel. The emerging naval architecture by the US and the UK is an important joint effort.
Oman plays a large role in the East of Suez concept concerning the Arabian Peninsula. In Oman, Britain holds annual Saif Sareea exercises which are only growing over time. New training bases are opening around Salalah as a result of the close relationship.
A No-Deal Brexit will unlikely harm British deployments and operations throughout the East of Suez, specifically around the Arabian Peninsula.
Dr. Theodore Karasik
For those supporting the move to Brexit this is the moment when relations with the Gulf are critical and any sign of weakness is unhealthy for the East of Suez concept. From the perception of an expansive Iran, London’s actions matter now. That fact is why the UK is not a reluctant partner against Iran when it comes to defensive action. Moreover, the East of Suez strategy calls for the idea to pre-position forces and equipment in the Gulf before they are needed, while simultaneously showing support for countries considered allies.
A pressure point will likely emerge over the Brexit journey and the stress put on British society. Preparatory measures are being devised for shortages of key supplies and foodstuffs by civil defense authorities. The impact on defense spending and maintenance of forces specifically in the Gulf may become a challenge, but not an insurmountable one now that Britain is playing a role in the US-led naval coalition in the Gulf against Iran. Yet half of the Royal Navy is in shipping yards. Although underfunded in key areas, the British military is still the tip of the spear. It is in this area that the UK’s excellence helps in several theaters throughout the East of Suez arena.
A key question is going to be how East of Suez works with an increased Russian presence in the Gulf and the region as a whole.
UK-Russia relations are a tangled mess of intrigue, threats, and for some on the British political spectrum, cooperation. Sanctions against Russia are meant to hurt Moscow. But with the UK’s military presence in the Gulf, there are questions about how the UK is prepared to deal with Russian policy in the overall East of Suez concept. Bilateral ties are likely to remain very frosty with Prime Minister Boris Johnson, especially since Iran is using hybrid warfare tactics and electronic warfare spoofing. With Russian President Vladimir Putin visiting the region soon the UK will be watching closely how London’s Gulf allies react to Moscow’s overtures on Iran, Syria, Yemen and Libya.
The UK is joining the US-led maritime mission protecting sea craft from Iran’s terrorist-designated Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, or related elements that are conducting maritime piracy and holding the shipping industry hostage. Insurance rates are rising and cruise liners are canceling their ports of call in the Gulf. A No-Deal Brexit will unlikely harm British deployments and operations throughout the East of Suez, specifically around the Arabian Peninsula.
• Dr. Theodore Karasik is a senior adviser to Gulf State Analytics in Washington, D.C. He is a former RAND Corporation Senior Political Scientist who lived in the UAE for 10 years, focusing on security issues.