Strategic Partnership Between the Gulf and Britain

Strategic Partnership Between the Gulf and Britain
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The GCC summit in Bahrain has sanctioned the resumption of Britain's role that existed prior to the independence of some of the member states - dubbed gunboat diplomacy - and inaugurated a Gulf-British agreement to deter Iran and jointly confront strategic and security threats pursuant to a British commitment to help safeguard the GCC six member states. The message sent out by British PM Theresa May, the guest of honor at the gathering, was unequivocal: your wellbeing and security is our wellbeing and security, she told the Gulf leaders, vowing that Britain was aware of the strategic threat posed by Iran to the Gulf and the Middle East. May pledged to work together to deter Iran's aggressive behavior in the region, in Lebanon, Yemen, Syria, or the Gulf itself. The mechanism for Britain to fulfill its commitments will be an upgraded British base in Bahrain, facilitated by the Bahraini government with broad implications for the Gulf region.

The strategic partnership between the GCC and Britain, which the Bahraini king said represented a qualitative shift in their relations, comes at a time when Russia is consolidating its foothold in the Middle East via Syria, where the Russians both maintain bases and are an active party to the civil war alongside the forces of Bashar al-Assad. But the British rush to forge strategic security and trade ties with Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar, Kuwait, Oman, and Bahrain also constitutes a message to Trump's America that London intends to press forward with close engagement of the Gulf whether Trump wants to be part of the partnership or not.

Yet according to reports, there are indications the US intends to maintain long-term presence in the region, possibly through military bases. The US needs to guarantee a permanent presence in Iraq after the battle for Mosul, said commander of the international coalition forces US Gen. Steven Townsend at the summit. The division of spheres of influence through the military presence of the major powers in the Middle East is a clear signal that a new regional order is emerging, and also of the restoration of the security equilibrium in the Gulf region.

Bahrain, by hosting the Gulf Summit, the UK-Bahrain summit, and the Saudi-Bahraini summit within the space of three days succeeded in scoring internal and regional security achievements, sending a message to Iran that its regional and international support are rock solid.

The visit by the British premier to Manama was her first to the Gulf region. According to a veteran Gulf commentator, the visit marked "the return of British imperialism to the Gulf." But the UK's comeback is timely, according to some figures from the Gulf and Bahrain, the latter being the soft belly of the Arabian Gulf region that Iran has exploited to meddle in the region's affairs. Britain's strong presence through the UK naval base in Bahrain will guarantee some deterrence that all sides, particularly Iran, are sure to take stock of. Bahrain is in need of a partner that understands its composition, one with whom there are historical relations and one that is reliable and dependable.

This does not mean that Bahrain or the Gulf have decided to forfeit historical security ties with the US or replace the US with the UK as their exclusive strategic partner. The Bahraini foreign minister, Sheikh Khaled bin Ahmed Al Khalifa, was clear in saying that the enhanced and expanded partnership with Britain was not at all a response to the perceived US retreat from the region, or an indication that the Gulf countries intend to abandon the strategic partnership with the US. The final statement of the Manama summit then said that the Gulf countries looked forward to enhancing historical and strategic ties with the United States.

This does not invalidate the clear reality, despite the hopes harbored by the Gulf countries of renewed US interest in them, that Britain has decided not to wait for the demystification of ambiguous US policies on the Gulf before acting. Britain took the initiative to remove any ambiguity or hesitation regarding UK-Gulf relations, sought after by the government of Theresa May especially in the wake of Brexit, in order to expand British-Gulf partnership through an institutional commitment, and consolidate them at all levels through strategic engagements based on shared security, economic, and technological interests. This came in the midst of Gulf doubts regarding US policies in the region, especially under Barack Obama, and on the eve of the transition into unchartered waters under president-elect Donald Trump. The British reassurance came at a time when the countries of the GCC were in dire need for reaffirming the bond with major Western powers.

This development could prompt Iran to respond with threats and escalate against Gulf countries starting with Bahrain. Some in the Gulf expect this, but without the usual apprehension. Indeed, Britain has reassured Gulf leaders that it will not accept provocations or stand idly by Iranian meddling and attempts to destabilize the Gulf, and would provide deterrence through its military base in Bahrain.

It is difficult to imagine that Britain could confront Iran militarily to defend the Gulf countries, however, particularly since London was a close partner of Washington in the Iraq War, which presented Mesopotamia to Iran on a silver platter. It is hard to envisage a British-Iranian military clash, also because Britain was one of the key countries that pushed for the nuclear deal with Iran, which emboldened the latter.

True, Britain has recently - and very timidly - began to speak out against Iran's role in Iraq, Yemen, and Syria. However, Britain continued not to hold Iran to account for these actions throughout the nuclear talks, further emboldening Tehran.

Perhaps the British government concluded that the best way to compensate its Brexit-induced losses lay in improved relations with the GCC. Theresa May pledged to work hard to conclude a free trade deal between Britain and the GCC, and told the summit the time was right to renew British-Gulf commitments at all levels.

The joint statement by Gulf leaders and the British PM emphasized the two sides' lasting commitment to protecting shared security interests in the Gulf through the new strategic partnership between the GCC and the UK, including by deterring and repelling any foreign aggression, and enhancing bonds through technical assistance, cooperation, and training in security and defense.

The joint statement addressed the Syrian issue. The two sides affirmed that Bashar al-Assad has lost his legitimacy and should have no role in Syria's future. The statement urged the international community to be united in calling on Assad and his backers, including Russia and Iran, to support a genuine political process. The statement also reaffirmed the two sides' "strong support" for the Syrian opposition, and said the leaders of the two sides would step up pressure on the Assad regime and its backers by increasing financial and economic restrictions.

But ultimately, Syria's presence in the summit was low-key, and no strong denunciations came out against what is happening in Aleppo, as though some are now surrendered to the fact that it is too late to do anything. There are clear differences between the positions of the Gulf states in Syria, the majority believing Syria is now the exclusive prerogative of Saudi Arabia and Qatar. According to sources, these two countries insist on continuing support for the Syrian opposition.

By contrast, Yemen was more strongly present at the summit. However, here too there are differences in the positions of the six Gulf states. Some believe the time has come to put serious pressure on Yemeni president Abdrabbo Mansour Hadi to agree to the roadmap proposed by the UN envoy Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed based on American and other ideas.

The joint statement affirmed once again political action in accordance with the Gulf initiative and resolution 2216. Some speeches stressed the legitimacy represented by President Hadi, while others stressed the importance of the international roadmap above all. More importantly, the Gulf leaders and British officials spoke in the joint statement about working together for the reconstruction of Yemen, including the rehabilitation of the economy, ports, and public services after a political solution is agreed.

The leaders of the two sides also expressed support for international efforts for a power-sharing solution in Libya. They stressed the need to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on the basis of the two-state solution, and welcomed the election of a new president in Lebanon, calling for strengthening Lebanese institutions and stressing the need to combat all terrorist groups active on Lebanese territory and posing a threat to the country's security and stability. On Egypt, the leaders very briefly said in the statement that the GCC and the UK support the cooperation between the IMF and Egypt.

The GCC-UK summit stressed the importance of fighting terrorism, especially groups such as al-Qaeda, ISIS, and similar groups. The two sides agreed on a number of counter-terrorism measures, including on foreign fighters enlisted with terror groups.

The year 2017 will be a special one for Bahrain, the current president of the GCC before handing over the presidency to Kuwait in 2018. Bahrain had an important start with the security of the Gulf and the messages of support were strong, especially in the wake of the visit by the Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz to Bahrain. Saudi Arabia, as Bahrain's King Hamad bin Issa said, represents the Gulf and Arab strategic depth and mainstay of the security and stability of the region. For its part, Britain has made a strong comeback to the Gulf region through its naval presence in Bahrain, with important implications that are sure to reassure the people of the Gulf.

Translated by Karim Traboulsi:

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