Britain is set to restore a military presence in its former imperial stomping grounds in the Persian Gulf, driven in part by the need to fill in behind U.S. forces who will withdraw as part of the Pentagon’s “pivot” to Asia, a London think tank with close ties to the British armed forces said in a study published Monday.
The Royal United Services Institution’s study named al-Minhad air base in Dubai as the likely first candidate for a new British presence, marking the return of the United Kingdom to its former imperial possessions in the Middle East for the first time in more than 40 years.
“Just as the U.K.’s withdrawal [from the Middle and Far East] in 1971 created a security vacuum that drew the United States, somewhat unwillingly, further into the affairs of the Gulf, the U.S. cooling of its engagement seems to be drawing the U.K. back in,” reads the study “A Return to East of Suez? U.K. Military Deployment to the Gulf.”
Authors Gareth Stansfield and Saul Kelly note public statements and plans by the British government that point to a deepening strategic commitment in the Gulf. The change is “more evolutionary than revolutionary,” the authors say.
“In recent years, [al-Minhad] has taken on a major role as the most important link in the U.K. logistics chain to Afghanistan,” Mr. Stansfield told The Washington Times.
The base is “a prime location for U.K. military logistics, transport and deployment” in the Middle East and beyond, added Mr. Stansfield, who is director of the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies at Exeter University in England.
The U.S. military calls such forward deployment “force projection,” but Mr. Stansfield said a Royal Air Force base in Dubai would be “force projection but in a very British way … a much more limited way.” It would be a “jump in and jump out” spot, he said.
Mr. Stansfield noted that British forces will have to “repatriate” a lot of gear, vehicles and weapons as they withdraw from Afghanistan, adding that it might be cheaper to keep some of it in the Middle East.
Nearly all international combat troops are scheduled to leave Afghanistan by the end of 2014.
British troops also are leaving Germany, Mr. Stansfield said, adding that British forces could maintain their overseas logistics and supply chains by basing some elements in the Gulf.
British military officials already have committed to keeping at least two brigades from their new “adaptable force” deployed in Oman and Jordan to train host militaries and build “tactical level relationships” with foreign allies, he said.
Daniel Sherman, a spokesman for the Royal United Services Institution, said that even though Britain’s Defense Ministry has made no formal announcement, its return to the Gulf is “something that is already happening.”
The British Embassy in Washington had no immediate comment.
The left-wing Labor Party government of Prime Minister Harold Wilson decided in the late 1960s to close military bases in the Far East and Middle East beyond the Suez Canal, which had served as a linchpin of the British Empire for more than a century. The withdrawal was completed by the Conservative government of Prime Minister Edward Heath in 1971, allowing the Gulf states to become independent.