Leo Docherty is Director of the Conservative Middle East Council and a former soldier.
The Eurofighter Typhoon was the star turn at last weekend’s Bahrain International Airshow, which brought defence manufacturers from around the world to the small gulf kingdom.
Impressive too was the announcement by Bahrain’s national carrier, Gulf Air, of an order for a new fleet of Airbus 320s with a value of more than $3bn – sure to have a positive impact on the more than 10,000 Airbus jobs that exist in the UK.
But beyond the spectacular air displays and commercial jockeying the air show represented something more important: the strategic cooperation that rightly exists between Bahrain and the UK, and has done for two hundred years since Bahrain and Great Britain signed their first treaty in 1816.
Now, with the Middle East ablaze and tensions in the Arabian Gulf at an unprecedented high,the stability and security of Bahrain matters more than ever before to the UK.
Driving this tension in the Gulf is the regional challenge from Iran. Geo-political tussling between the Persians and the Arabs is not a new phenomenon and has its roots in the ancient world.
But the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran marked a new departure, with the rise of a regime that sought to export its Islamic revolution among Shi’a populations across the Arab world, upturn the status quo, and exploit sectarian fault lines that before 1979 featured surprisingly little in the politics of the region.
Iran’s elite Iran Revolutionary Guard Corps has prosecuted with great effectiveness a series of proxy wars across the Middle East. The list is startling:
- creating Hezbollah in Lebanon in the 1980s and mobilising it to blow up 241 American and 58 French personnel in Beirut in 1983;
- supporting the Assad regime in Syria;
- providing shaped explosive charges to the insurgent groups killing British soldiers in Iraq until 2009; bolstering the Houthi rebellion in Yemen that has, since March 2015, sucked in an alliance of Gulf Arab states and brought Yemen to crisis point;
- exploiting Bahrain’s Shia rebellion of 2011 as a means of challenging the rule of the Al Khalifa family.
The 2003 invasion of Iraq entrenched these divisions and empowered Iran beyond measure, opening the door to Iranian dominance of the fragmented Iraqi state.
After 500 years, since the Ottomans established the Baghdad Wilayet in the Sixteenth Century, Sunni rule was brought to an ignominious end and a Shi’a ascendancy in Iraq became inevitable.
This of course was never the intention, but intentional or not, as Gulf friends still complain today, with fingers wagging bitterly, the invasion of Iraq handed that country to Iran on a silver plate.
Fast-forward to 2013 and Obama’s disastrous red-line u-turn over Assad’s use of chemical weapons in Syria entrenched this situation and marked a nadir in America’s interest in the region, leaving a power vacuum that Iran and Russia have been enthusiastically filling.
To the great shame of Sunni Arabs, Iranian hardliners boast that they now control four Arab capitals; Baghdad, Sanaa in Yemen, Beirut, and Damascus.
Bahrainis fear that Iran wishes to control their capital too. Indeed the Iranian government claims Bahrain as its own territory, and reportedly keeps two empty seats in its parliamentary majlis for Bahrain to symbolise this intent.
The question now is, after the nuclear deal of 2015 and the lifting of sanctions this month, will Iran moderate its interventionism? Our allies across the Gulf fear this will not be the case and that the nuclear deal is just another step on the US journey towards a complete abandonment of the Middle East.
They suspect that the West is reconciled to the inevitability of Iran as the dominant Gulf power and that the US and her allies – exhausted by more than a decade of disastrous and costly military entanglement in Iraq and Afghanistan – lack the stomach for any kind of fight.
We must prove them wrong. We must take the diplomatic lead in the region – and bring our American friends along with us. We will also need to back our diplomacy with hard power – and the resolve to use it.
For this reason the commencement last year of the new British naval base of Mina Salman in Bahrain was great news.
Located adjacent to the vast US Fifth Fleet, it is a critical step forward to ensuring a permanent, enduring hard power presence in Bahrain that will demonstrate to all our allies in the region that we mean business and are prepared to robustly defend the sovereignty of our Gulf allies.
Moderate leadership and responsible government are precious commodities in the Middle East, and we should be glad that Bahrain as an ally of two centuries’ standing is also a modern state, where all religious faiths are respected and where Jews and Christians occupy high positions in the government and legislature.
Nowhere else in the Middle East today – outside of Israel – would you meet a female Jewish MP.
The United Kingdom scurried out of the Gulf in 1971, hastened by financial hardship and reckless disinterest on the part of the British government. Disinterest is no longer an option and happily we are now back east of Suez.
Bahrain is at the heart of our presence there and while it may be a small island, its importance to stability in the Gulf and to Britain’s strategic interest is huge.