Britain’s “Base” in Bahrain: insult, symbolic violence, and hostage to fortune

Shut it

It’s gratifying to see demonstrations in Bahrain calling specifically for the removal of Iain Lindsay, the British “ambassador” to the Al Khalifa family-state in Bahrain, the man makes me ashamed to be British. When he’s not acting as a PR agent for this nasty little regime — as he did most recently over the sham elections held there in November 2014 — he’s doing his damnedest to facilitate a British neo-colonialism in the Gulf region, in this case the recently announced British “base” in Bahrain.

However, Lindsay’s had his reward, and no doubt when he eventually leaves the FCO he can look forward to a lucrative career as a go-between in the Gulf, facilitating arms deals or whatever floats his mercenary boat. But Lindsay is a mere instrument, behind him is a UK government that is bent on returning Bahrain to protectorate status, with the connivance the Al Khalifas, who are only to happy to sell Bahraini independence for protection. From the British point-of-view, perhaps the drivers of this are:

* An anachronistic, sentimental and regressive nostalgia for Empire on the part of some sections of the British establishment

* The imperative to develop Bahrain as a kind of entrepot to promote and consolidate British arms and security-related trade, ultimately with an eye on more lucrative Gulf markets, in particular Saudi Arabia

* A willingness to play the role of regional policeman as the United States disengages from the Gulf to “pivot eastwards” towards the Asia-Pacific theatre

The latter point is a particularly worrying development. Okay, so it’s hardly a “base” in any meaningful sense, but merely a 15 million GBP ‘HQ’ (according to the Navy 6m), situated in Mina Salman, a 70 acre naval base that currently hosts the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet (and the Al Khalifa regime’s Lilliputian “Royal Navy”) on the site of what was indeed once a major UK Royal Navy base, until Britain’s “withdrawal from east of Suez” in 1971.

As such, this HQ is little more than a symbolic, PR-led (and bargain basement, since Bahrainis are being forced to subsidise it) gesture of support from a nasty Imperial-nostalgic Conservative administration to its arms-sales “allies” in the Gulf. This much-vaunted “base” at present therefore amounts to not much more than a glorified office with an arms sales showroom attached. In a sense the new HQ-puffed-up-as-a-base changes nothing. Britain’s various minesweepers, frigates and destroyer’s have been patrolling the Gulf, popping in and out of Mina Salman,since the early 1980s — the club house of the Bahrain Rugby Club is festooned with the shields of the HMSs whose onboard teams have played there, going back to the poor old Shiny Sheff — HMS Sheffield — the type 42 guided missile destroyer sunk during the Falklands War in 1942. In that regard, this new HQ/base changes nothing.

But for the present it is the symbolism that counts, a symbolism which at once underscores the British government’s support for the Al Khalifa junta, and at the same time is a calculated insult to the people of Bahrain, who for a long time during the twentieth century were at the forefront of the Arab struggle against Western imperialism Although Bahrain was a British protectorate from 1816 until 1971, strong Marxist and Arab nationalist movements meant that Bahrain saw against the British protectorate occurring regularly, notably 1921–23, 1934–35, 1938, 1947–48, 1953–56, and 1965.

Britain’s “withdrawal from east of Suez” in 1971 was led in large part by the then Labour government’s pragmatic estimation of Britain’s declining influence in the world and the realization that taxpayers’ money would be better spent at home. As a consequence of this withdrawal, Bahrain achieved independence in 1971, but were significant uprisings following the Al Khalifa clan’s suppression (with British connivance) of the post-independence democratic assembly in 1975, and in the early 1980s following the Iranian Revolution. The ‘Bahrain Intifada’ of 1995-2002 followed, and nrest resumed in the mid-2000s with the failure of the reformist 2002 constitution, culminating in the 14th February Revolution of 2011, the Brutal suppression of which was facilitated in part by Saudi and UAE military intervention, and in part through the strong political and security support provided by the current British government towards its Al Khalifa family state “ally”.

As such, while this little HQ is a big-up to the Al Khalifas, it is a calculated insult to the people of Bahrain, who in 2011 mobilized against their unwanted and imposed monarchy the largest demonstrations as a percentage of population in any Arab country. Further, it is an insult not only to Bahrain’s “new Arab” “2011 generation”, but also it is an insult to generations of Bahrainis proud of the prominent role they played in the post-Second World War global “winds of change” anti-colonial struggle. More than a mere insult, this HQlet is a denial of the political history of the Bahraini people, and a bid to erase their cultural memory of struggle. It is an act of symbolic violence second only to the destruction of the Pearl monument, and like the appointment of disgraced former Metropolitan Police Assistant Commissioner and Her Majesty’s Inspector or Prison’s looking the other way when torture happens, facilitates the structural violence of the Al Khalifa family state.

Yet beyond this toxic symbolism and its symbolic and structural violence, perhaps this “base” is also a foot-in-the-door and a worrying and dangerous precedent.

The US has anxieties about its naval base in Bahrain, which hosts the US Fifth Fleet and is large enough to house a Nimitz class nuclear-powered and nuclear-armed aircraft carrier, and its attendant carrier group of supply ships, guided missile cruisers, and anti-aircraft and anti-submarine destroyers (my son has camped out on one such carrier, the USS Eisenhower, when he was in the Boy Scouts in Bahrain). Yet elements of the US administration are uneasy about the US Navy presence in Bahrain:

* Whatever the UK FCO might imagine, the Al Khalifa regime’s reputation for the suppression of democracy and human rights is notorious, and from a US point-of-view sends out all the wrong messages, regionally and worldwide

* Since the capital ships of the Fifth Fleet are all nuclear powered and can stay at sea for months at a time and can be supplied and maintained at sea, the Mina Salman base serves largely symbolic function projecting US power, and serves a secondary a convenience-cum-shoreleave destination (with all that implies for the local communities and environs)

* The now nearly energy independent USA is seeking to disengage from the Gulf, to facilitate a “pivot eastwards to the Asia-Pacific theatre (a frightening development in its own right)

In the short term, the US might well relocate from Bahrain to another Gulf state, or the “pivot east” might entail a complete US withdrawal from the region, maintaining merely an “at sea” presence close to the Gulf. In such an eventuality, it is likely that the policing of the Gulf on behalf of Western energy-security interests would be delegated to the US’ Western allies, Britain and France. A precedent for this might be the so-called Camp de la Paix (I shudder to think what the Greenham women would have made of that title!) established in Abu Dhabi in 2009 as part of the Implantation militaire française aux Émirats arabes unis.

In such circumstances, the people of Bahrain could well see the head of the Al Khalifa household “inviting” the British Royal Navy to re-occupy its former base in Mina Salman after the USN had vacated it. This would meet:

* A US desire to withdraw and redeploy — its own version of Britain’s 1971 “withdrawal from east of Suez”;

* A Khalifa-state desire for “protection” at all costs, even the restoration of colonial relations

* A British establishment nostalgia for Empire, and

* A British arms industry (about the only heavy industry Britain has left) and security industry desire for the continuation and deepening of the current exporter-importer, seller-buyer, centre-periphery, dominator-dependent stet of relationships through which it exploits regional client-states

In such an eventuality the current HQ-puffed-up-as-a-base would act as a foot-in-the-door enabling Britain to reinstate its pre-1971 (i.e. pre-Bahraini independence) presence in the Gulf. Such an action could not doubt be spun to The Great British Public nervous post-2003 of further British military intervention in the region and concerned about this sort of public spending as a mere “expansion” of an existing Gulf presence to “help” a “long-standing ally”. We already hear an echo of that in the PR line that the 2014 HQ is part of a joint British-“Bahraini” (i.e. Khalifa-state) operation against ISIS, when in fact (as its Royal Navy webpage confirms), the HQ predates the rise of ISIS.

It might rightly be argued that the Royal Navy of the 2010s is hardly the Royal Navy of the mid-C20th in terms of the global naval pecking order. While this is indeed the case, a Mina Salman vacated by the USN would make an excellent forward base of one of the RN’s new “Queen Elizabeth” class aircraft carriers, and attendant battle group. At 71,000 tons and nearly 1,000 feet in length, these are genuinely large ships, the “Invincible” class they replace were a mere 22,000 tons and 700 feet (a USN Nimitz class carrier is 111,000 tons and 1,100 feet), conceived of in the early 2000s, these were ordered and designed during the height of the Blair-era “liberal intervention” fad. The Queen Elizabeth was named in 2014 and is due to become operational in 2020, and the current Conservative-Liberal Democrat Coalition government ordered a second QE class carrier, due to be launched in 2017 and operational by the mid-2020s.

However, the QE class carriers are not like the US Nimitz class designed to play a pivotal role in fighting and winning a global war. They are able to host only helicopters and a relatively small number of Short Take Off and Landing fixed-wing aircraft 12 to 24 of the navalized STOL iterations of the now controversial and under-performing American F-35: despite their huge size, the QE carriers are essentially interventionalist platforms, designed in the large part to be a component of a wider “international” (i.e. US-led) intervention force. The QE are armed only with light anti-aircraft systems for close-in defence, and are not equipped with the kind of arrester apparatus an aircraft carrier needs to host larger or faster non-STOL fixed wing aircraft. Nevertheless, they could easily supply the Khalifa-state with an unprecedented level of “protection” (including “protection” from their own people), would constitute a powerful statement of Western intent in a post-US Gulf, and would be a key component in any “international” armada put together to fight a major war there.

Nonetheless, these ships would represent a significant upgrading of the UK presence in the Gulf, at the price of locking at least some of the Gulf states –led by the Khalifas — into a new protectorate/dependency relationship with the former colonial power. Further, any attempt to turn back the clock and (in effect if not in name) re-establish the British protectorate in the Gulf would inflict serious long-term harm on Britain’s reputation in a changing global order. Most of the revolutions of 2011 have been undermined either by the imposition of dictatorship, the use of proxy agents, or civil war, but the generational impetus for change remains, and is driven by cultural, economic, political, social, and technological drivers that are permanent and irreversible. The region has a long cultural and political memory, and this anachronistic bid to rebuild the British Empire will not be forgotten.

Regional concerns aside, what has any of this got to do with the real defense needs of a Britain groaning under public spending cuts that threaten to shrink the British state to 1930s levels? What has it got to do with any rational concept of the defence of the realm? British forces were, to strip away the bullshit, defeated in Basra, and arguably were also defeated in Afghanistan. This is no slight on British servicemen and women, since these defeats were in very large parts the result of the short-termist, nostaligic, opportunistic, wishful and rose-tinted thinking of the politicians of the day, a mindset that led to British forces being involved in open-ended conflicts where no real British interest was involved and without clear and achievable war aims. We see the same sort of thinking behind the present HQ. To be sure, it is a pipsqueak presence, but as the US redeploys its potential for expansion should not be forgotten.

As it is, the HQ is an insult to the people of Bahrain, yet it is an insult that threatens real injury to the region and indeed to Britain, as the latter seeks once more — its political class having learned nothing from 2003 — to punch once more not “above” but BEYOND its weight. As Karl Marx said, “History repeats itself, first time as a tragedy, second time a farce”: Rule Britannia … while the peoples who groan under despotisms such as the Khalifas groan in turn in hatred against “us”.

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