Empire 2.0: Gunboat Diplomacy In The Gulf

07/08/2017 11:48 BST | Updated 07/08/2017 11:48 BST

The direction of UK foreign policy in the aftermath of Brexit has been shrouded in the mist of uncertainty as attention focuses on the negotiations of leaving the European Union. That mist is slowly being burnt away by the heat of the Arabian sun. In a speech to the Gulf Cooperation Council on the 7th of December 2016, Theresa May declared that "Gulf security is our security" and committed to "invest in hard power, with over £3 billion of defence spending in the region over the next decade, spending more on defence in the Gulf than in any other region of the world". Simply put, the UK is tying itself to the future of autocratic regimes in the name of security, and descending back into the Empire's sacred formula of gunboat diplomacy. Nowhere is this clearer than in the Sultanate of Oman.

The Sultan of Oman has often been declared as the UK's 'man in the Middle East', and was installed as one of the world's last remaining absolute monarchs in 1970 following a bloodless British-backed palace coup. Trained at Sandhurst, and commissioned into the British Army, the Sultan has approved throughout his reign the purchase of British manufactured weaponry, most recently in 2013, as well as the stationing of British spy agencies and British forces in Oman. This military cooperation has been deepened through military exercises, most notably 'Swift Sword 2' in 2001, which involved the largest deployment of British forces abroad between the Gulf War and the invasion of Iraq. Theresa May has now committed to the next exercise scheduled in 2018.

As a loyal ally of the UK, the Westminster political establishment has rarely questioned the alleged human rights abuses in Oman. Human Rights Watch have documented the existence of an extensive system of repression and censorship throughout the country, including arbitrary arrests and detentions alongside the suppression of independent journalism and human rights activism. Consequently, it can be argued that Oman features amongst a long list of UK allies whose blatant disregard for human rights undermines the integrity of the UK's foreign policy.

Yet the clearest indication of where the UK is heading is revealed in a little lauded £110 million deal between one of the UK's largest defence contractors, Babock International and the Sultanate, for the expansion of the Omani port of Duqm. The deal involves the creation of infrastructure capable of supporting the Navy's two new aircraft carriers, suggesting that these forces will be active in the theatre at the very least, if not engaged. This seeming commitment to interventionism in the Middle East, coupled with Theresa May's speech to the GCC has concerning overtones for a post-Brexit UK that will be keen to emphasise its military credentials as a sign of global influence.

Several questions need to be answered by the UK Government, aside from widespread concern over human rights abuses by the UK's Gulf allies. Theresa May's blank cheque to the GCC and seeming cast-iron commitment to the preservation of the regional status quo, and therefore several repressive and autocratic regimes, disregards broader discussions over the legitimacy of tying so closely the UK's national security interests to those of the Gulf. This is firstly in respect to the Gulf's diminishing importance in long-term strategic thinking given the declining use of hydrocarbons in the UK's economic mix, and the shift in conflicts towards hybrid terrorism. The constantly peddled argument concerning their importance in counter-terrorism ignores issues such as home-grown terrorism, or the potential role of citizens, organisations and even states from the Gulf in financing activities that can classed under terrorism. The UK Government's suppression of a Home Office report on Jihadist organisations and their financiers this year only strengthens this argument.

At a strategic level, concerns must be raised over the increasingly sharp tone adopted by the UK Government to Chinese military positions in the South China Sea. Specifically, one must question whether the UK decision to enhance military infrastructure in the Gulf to accommodate the navy's prime assets was in any way a response to Chinese plans to build military facilities in Pakistan and Djibouti. As reports circulate that the fleet will be more active in around Australia and the Pacific, alongside evidence of increasing investment in military infrastructure in the Gulf, one can only assume that the Conservative Government is reverting to antiquated precedent and following the Empire's strategy of gunboat diplomacy.

We must ask ourselves whether we accept this approach. My position is clear: a UK foreign policy harking back to the days of empire through the aggressive deployment of armed force ignores the realities of a globalised world bounded by international law and human rights, or the damage of successive budget cuts to the military. Furthering a foreign policy based on military power, alluded to through the UK's approach to the Gulf, offers only a dangerous and unsustainable future.