News that Britain will build a new naval base in Bahrain has disappointed many local and international observers alike who feel that the deal is a reward for the failure of David Cameron’s government to put sufficient pressure on the Gulf state to improve its human and political rights record.
For Britain it is certainly a telling step, the country’s first naval base east of the Suez Canal since their withdrawal from Bahrain in 1971. It shows the willingness of the British government to take an increasingly active role in promoting security in the Middle East and rejuvenates ties with a traditional ally.
Bahrain officially came under British control in 1892, although in reality British merchants and administrators had played an influential role in the kingdom for more than a century prior to that. The British were inextricably linked to the Al Khalifa dynasty, which has ruled Bahrain since 1783. In exchange for ensuring Bahrain’s security, Britain was given exclusive economic rights in the country and control over Bahrain’s foreign relations.
Bahrain prospered under British (and increasingly American) guidance, becoming an important trading hub along the Empire’s trade routes. Exploitation of pearl fisheries and, from the 1930s, oil, contributed to Bahrain’s economic ascent.
It would take the rise of Arab nationalism and the spread of anti-colonial sentiment in the post-WWII period before Bahrain eventually tired of British overlordship. That said, the two states have retained strong relations since Bahrain’s independence in 1971 and the new naval base agreement a strong signal of intent for a long-term strategic partnership.
The Al-Khalifa rulers are aware of the role Britain played in enabling Bahrain’s rise towards an independent and prosperous statehood. In agreeing to host a new British naval base, they are acknowledging this, in addition to underlining their commitment to playing a lead role in bringing security to the world’s most fragile region.