Britain is establishing its first permanent military base in the Middle East for 43 years in Bahrain to bolster security against Isis.
Four Royal Navy ships are already permanently based at the Mina Salman Port but the deal will allow more destroyers and aircraft carriers to be moored in the area.
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 activists who have a labelled it as “reward” for the British government’s for a “silence” over human right’s violations in the country.
Although military officials have reportedly been working towards the move for around two years, the threat from Isis in Iraq and Syria has heightened the focus on Britain's presence in the region.
Philip Hammond signed the £15 million deal with Bahrain's foreign minister, Sheikh Khalid bin Ahmed bin Mohammed Al-Khalifa.
The Foreign Secretary said: “This will guarantee the presence of the Royal Navy in Bahrain well into the future.
“The expansion of Britain's footprint builds upon our 30-year track record of Gulf patrols and is just one example of our growing partnership with Gulf partners to tackle shared strategic and regional threats.”
A string of human rights groups, including Human Rights Watch, have criticised Bahrain’s human rights record and anti-arms campaigners protested outside a This is Bahrain conference staged in Westminster earlier this year, demanding the Government and royal family sever all ties with the regime.
Observers have recorded “arbitrary” arrests of anti-government protesters, torture and deaths in custody, the persecution of political critics, crackdowns on the freedom of assembly and expression, forced labour and poor treatment of women in Islamic courts.
Nabeel Rajab, an opposition politician and president of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, told The Independent: “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 these 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.”
The announcement follows a damming report last month by the influential House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, which found there was “little or no evidence that Bahrain has made enough progress in implementing political reform and safeguarding human rights.”
The report added that Foreign Office should have “bitten the bullet and designated Bahrain as country of concern”.
However last night the report’s chair seemed to distance himself from this conclusion and welcomed the base announcement.
Conservative MP Sir Richard Ottaway said the base was "an excellent decision".
He added: "Its strategic value to Britain is tremendous. And hopefully the presence of our sailors and soldiers there at a permanent base will persuade Bahrain implement the outstanding Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry human rights reforms.”
Sheikh Khalid said Britain and Bahrain shared a “joint determination” to maintain regional security and stability and would enhance co-operation.
Under the deal, the existing facilities at the port will be expanded and a forward operating base established, with Bahrain paying most of the infrastructure costs.
Michael Fallon, the Defence Secretary, said the base was a “permanent expansion” for the Royal Navy that would allow the use of more, larger shifts to “reinforce stability”.
“We will now be based again in the Gulf for the long term,” he added.
Sir Nicholas Houghton, the Chief of the Defence Staff, told BBC Radio 4's Today programme the move was strategically important.
“Rather than just being seen as a temporary deployment to an area for a specific operational purpose, this is more symbolic of the fact that Britain does enjoy interests in the stability of this region,” he added.
"And the fact that the Bahraini authorities and government agreed to fund infrastructure within the country to base our maritime capability forward, both is recognition from their perspective of the quality of the relationship with the United Kingdom, but also of our interest over time in maintaining the stability of this very important area."
Additional reporting by PA
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