Imperial nostalgia on one hand, and musings of national security seem to have transformed the UK and US into the most stalwart allies of dictatorial regimes.
“We will be based again in the Gulf for the long term”, trumpeted British Defense Secretary Michael Fallon, speaking in Bahrain on the sidelines of the annual Manama Dialogue as he unveiled plans for the UK’s first permanent military base East of Suez in 40 years. The Royal Navy, the main beneficiary of the $23 million outpost, will receive in 2016 the keys to what will be its largest center of operations outside continental Britain. The 2010 Lancaster House agreements signed by David Cameron with his French counterpart, by which the two countries decided to pool certain military assets in order to accommodate budget constraints, seemed a distant memory.
Fallon emphasized that the British Royal Navy’s deployment will bring “stability to the region”, citing the threats posed by ISIS and the deteriorating civil war in Syria. When completed, Fallon continued, “the naval base will enable Britain to send more and larger ships to reinforce stability in the gulf” and train Syrian rebels alongside Royal forces. The base, located some 200 km off the coast of Iran, is expected to ease the burden on the US military as it undergoes its own pivot to Asia.
Britain’s glorious plan ran into a snag, however, when local police used tear gas to disperse the hundreds of Bahrainis that had taken to the streets in protest of the announcement. Demonstrators condemned London for what they saw as a pat on the back of a totalitarian government that has never expiated for the sins of the 2011 democratic uprising in Pearl Square when it relied on Saudi Arabia’s tanks to demolish the camps set up by activists. For many activists, this represented the last nail in the coffin for human rights and democracy, as London turned its back on moral principles in the name of a never-ending “war on terror”.
Although widely-hailed as an “empire strikes back” moment for Britain, the reality is that the Albion never actually retreated west of the Suez—whether by participating in the military campaigns led by the U.S. in the Middle East or in Libya, the UK has maintained a considerable, albeit lighter, footprint on world affairs. In the Gulf, London positioned itself as a major arms exporter. Bahrain, for example, has bought some $50 million worth of equipment since 2008, including the riot gear used in the quashing of the 2011 uprising.
Indeed, Bahrain’s democratic credentials are appalling to say the least. According to Human Rights Watch, the country has regressed year after year as the government made little to no progress regarding reforms it claimed to pursue. Torture related deaths, arrests of political opponents, jailing of dissidents, all form part of the kingdom’s toolkit to stay in power. By turning a blind eye to the voice of the streets, the UK chose to pump up its global profile and prop up an illiberal regime that will inevitably fall, just like the Shah’s regime was toppled in Iran in spite of the billions of Western arms contracts.
Intriguingly, the UK is borrowing a page from the U.S.’s playbook of artificially increasing the strategic value of dictators by entrusting them with military bases deemed vital for its national security. This loosely defined principle has proven time and time again to be an overarching mantra that cannot be challenged or endangered, no matter the cost. Issues such as morality, corruption or safeguarding human rights fall well into the background as the West chooses to smooth the ruffled feathers of strongmen plagued by their own internal problems.
Washington has taken the practice of cementing a dictator’s grip on power by deploying military assets in their strategically placed countries to new heights. Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Oman, the United Arab Emirates, all are well documented cases of U.S. allies that have been shamed in the international media yet have always escaped criticism from Washington in the name of preserving a strategic partnership. But these are not the only examples.
For example, the U.S. maintains in Djibouti its most important African base, responsible for coordinating all drone strikes in Africa and the Middle East. In spite of a past checkered with countless human rights violations (including torture, rigged elections, and jailing of political opponents), the country’s leader, Ismail Omar Guelleh, has been praised as a key US ally and was welcomed with arms open wide and warm words by Barack Obama earlier in May during an official visit to the White House.
Moreover, as the Senate Intelligence Committee’s investigation into the unlawful practices of the CIA shows, multiple countries across the world played pivotal roles in the agency’s intelligence gathering through “enhanced interrogation techniques”, the mot du jour for torture. The report also shows that the CIA essentially bribed foreign government officials in order to sweeten the deal and convince them to host secret facilities.
Imperial nostalgia on one hand, and musings of national security seem to have inadvertently transformed the UK and the US into the most stalwart allies of dictatorial regimes, from the Middle East to the Horn of Africa. As Britain celebrates its return to the Middle East, maybe it should take a moment to reflect on the price its own grand ambitions will have on the local population and remember that many of the problems troubling the region come from its last involvement east of the Suez.