The Royal Navy will set up a permanent base in Bahrain, to the dismay of human rights campaigners who say the base is a “reward” for the British’s government silence over torture, attacks on peaceful protesters and arbitrary detention in the tiny kingdom.
British minesweeper vessels have operated from temporary structures at Mina Salmon port for several years, but speaking in Bahrain the Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond announced a new deal with kingdom for a £15m naval base. It will be able to host destroyers and the Royal Navy's powerful new Queen Elizabeth aircraft carriers, which are currently under construction in Scotland.
Britain closed all is major bases east of the Suez canal following major defence spending cuts in 1971 and while the return to the region has been welcomed by defence sources, it has been widely condemned by Bahraini human rights activists who have attacked the British Government’s ongoing support for the “repressive regime” in Manama.
During the Arab Spring in 2011 the UK and US supported Bahrain’s Sunni-dominated government after it violently put down protests by the majority Shia population.
Troops from neighbouring Saudi Arabia helped smash protesters who were calling for an end to the domination of the ruling al-Khalifa dynasty, which has controlled the country for more than 200 years. According to Amnesty International UK there are still “ongoing human rights concerns” over arbitrary arrests, crackdowns on protests, torture and political prisoners in the country.
Speaking at a security summit in Manama, Philip Hammond said he was "delighted" to sign the agreement which “will guarantee the presence of the Royal Navy in Bahrain well into the future”. It is understood that Bahrain will pay most of the £13m cost of the base.
However, local activists said they feared there would be “police violence” in the wake of the announcement as Bahrainis took to the streets to protest. In the town of Sitra, near the naval base, a demonstration was planned against the British role in the country on Saturday night.
Nabeel Rajab, an opposition politician and president of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, said: “This base is a reward to the British government for the silence they provided on human rights abuses in Bahrain, and for their continued support of this tyrannical and corrupt regime. The money to be paid by Bahrain to build this base, in fact, is for buying the silence of the British Government and support for the regime and against our struggle for justice, democracy and human rights."
Bahrain campaigners have also been quick to point out that the naval base decision comes only a month after a damning report from influential House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee found that there was “little or no evidence that Bahrain has made enough progress in implementing political reform and safeguarding human rights.” The reported added that Foreign Office should have “bitten the bullet and designated Bahrain as country of concern”.
Maryam al-Khawaja, a Bahraini human rights activist living in exile in Denmark after two members of her family were detained for democracy campaigning, said: “This base is a disaster for human rights in Bahrain... if you look back at the role of the British in Bahrain it has always been negative, since popular uprisings were put down with the help of help of the British in the 1950s and 1960s.”
Ms Khawaja added that the planned protest in Sitra was targeted at the British ambassador Iain Lindsay who many in Bahrain see as “little more than a PR mouthpiece and apologist for the regime.”
On Saturday the chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee seemed to distance himself from the findings of the report in light of the naval announcement. Conservative MP Sir Richard Ottaway said: “It’s an excellent decision. Its strategic value to Britain is tremendous. And hopefully the presence of our sailors and soldiers there at a permanent base will persuade Bahrain to implement the outstanding Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry recommendations for human rights’ reforms.”
Lord Sir Alan West, a retired Royal Navy admiral and former Labour security minister, welcomed the announcement. He did however point out the relatively small scale of the base and said it not signify a “major shift in policy” in the area, while Christian Le Miere, a senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, said the base was “symbolically important” as the first base east of Suez since 1971, but would be “small in comparison” to the UK’s historical role in the region and will be “dwarfed” by the US military presence in country.
Since the retreat from Suez in 1971 numerous rounds of defence cuts have reduced the British fleet to 19 destroyers and frigates, 10 nuclear submarines, one helicopter carrier and two landing ships, which according to Lord West is “not enough” for a “medium power whose prosperity requires unimpeded maritime access and transit.”
The Bahrain base announcement came after the capability of the Royal Navy fleet was placed into sharp focus by the deployment of a relatively small patrol vessel - which normally helps enforce fishery quotas and checks on trawlers in the North Sea - to combat drug smugglers in the North Atlantic this winter.
The deployment of HMS Severn last month to the Atlantic Patrol Tasking (North) is the first time that such a small and lightly armed vessel, which does not operate with an embarked helicopter, has been dispatched across the Atlantic.
Lord West said the eight-month deployment of HMS Severn showed commanders were having to “make the best of a bad job.” He said: “We should be concerned that the Royal Navy is overstretched and too small to do what the nation requires and expects of it.”
The long-standing patrol focuses hurricane response and combating drug smuggling, but until recently it had always been carried out by a far larger, more capable and helicopter-carrying destroyer, frigate or Royal Fleet Auxiliary vessel.
A Royal Naval spokesperson said that HMS Severn is “well prepared and resourced” for the role but Peter Roberts, a senior research fellow at the defence think tank RUSI, said: “HMS Severn is not equipped to deal with the anti-narcotics role in the way a major warship or a Royal Fleet Auxiliary ship would be, as it does not usually operate a helicopter.
“This means it won’t be able to operate a Lynx helicopter with a Royal Marine airborne sniping team, who in stunning displays of accuracy are able to shoot out the engines of the small smuggler boats going at 40 or 50 knots over the water.”