More than four decades after removing its troops from east of Suez, the United Kingdom is beefing up its military presence in the region, with Defense Secretary Gavin Williamson announcing plans to open a training base for ground forces in Oman next year following the opening of a naval base in Bahrain this spring.
Why it matters: Even with Britain deep in talks to leave the European Union, it can still represent European values in the region, experts say. “Britain is becoming more important in the region,” said Sigurd Neubauer, a Washington-based Middle East analyst. “It can in some ways speak for Europe broadly in the region, with the [Donald] Trump administration pursuing its own agenda.”
Speaking at a Gulf Cooperation Council summit in Bahrain in 2016, British Prime Minister Theresa May urged the region’s leaders to push ahead with social and economic reforms. “As the United Kingdom leaves the European Union,” she said, “I am determined that we should seize the opportunity to get out into the world and to shape an even bigger global role for my country: Yes, to build new alliances, but more importantly, to go even further in working with old friends, like our allies here in the Gulf, who have stood alongside us for centuries.”
Friends forever: Muscat has enjoyed decades of friendship with the British, including a visit by Queen Elizabeth in 2010, and just wrapped up a military exercise that included more than 5,500 UK troops. In her 2016 speech, May made clear that she saw Oman and Bahrain, where the UK recently opened a 500-sailor naval facility that will support major British aircraft carriers, as focal points of a new regional strategy. “We will create a permanent presence in the region, the first such facility east of Suez since 1971, with more British warships, aircraft and personnel deployed on operations in the Gulf than in any other part of the world,” she said.
Another reason Oman and the UK may be getting closer? Trump administration steel and aluminum tariffs, which are hampering Muscat’s move toward heavy industry as it looks to diversify away from oil and natural gas.
What’s next: The Daily Mail reports that hundreds of troops will deploy to the training base in Oman in March 2019. The Pentagon has not had a carrier in the region in months, despite a request from US Central Command and longstanding US military policy to reinforce the important oil transit lane.
Know more: Al-Monitor looked at Oman’s lobbying in Washington for our annual series on Middle East lobbying earlier this year.