London Gears Up to Defend Salafi Wahhabi Sheikhs in Gulf
by Ramtanu Maitra on 31 May 2013 0 Comment

A number of major military interventions since the beginning of this millennium by the Atlantic Alliance troika - the United States, Britain and France - have left the Islamic world stretching from north of Afghanistan to south of Mali in a state of utter chaos. While the colonials and pro-imperial forces have already succeeded in making unstable at least three Muslim-majority nations - Iraq, Libya and Syria, using terrorist elements in at least two of those to achieve that end - such a policy poses long-term threats to the Muslim nations in the region, and beyond. The threatened countries include the Salafi-Wahhabi sheikhdoms of the Gulf, who act presently as cash-cow for two financially depleted former colonial powers - Britain and France. For the beneficiaries of Gulf cash, ensuring a secure financial future means protecting these sheikhdoms from being swept away in the wave of chaos the protectors have unleashed.


An April 2013 briefing paper, “A Return to East of Suez?: UK Military Deployment to the Gulf,” published by the Britain-based Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) and written by Gareth Stansfield and Saul Kelly, states that with the Middle East in near meltdown, the UK takes Gulf security seriously. In this resolve, it will be reinforcing its military partnership with the United States in the non-European theaters that most matter now to Washington - and that are all east of Suez. In other words, Britain is planning to enhance its presence in the Gulf to ensure protection of the despotic sheikhdoms, who are busy preaching and nurturing hordes of terrorists imbued with the most dangerous form of religious orthodoxy. The sheikhs are using their oil-and-gas-earned money to do so.


The Gulf: Britain’s Historical Pawn


That is not to say that Britain had left the Gulf and now has gone through a re-think to return. As the RUSI paper points out, “The facts would say that the UK did not; rather, the UK presence in the Gulf endured, in particular, with the military posture reacting to the needs of the day, and the political relationships oscillating between different governments.” While that assessment is correct, Britain, however, did lose its traditional regional dominance in the Gulf between 1966 and 1968, when the late British Premier Harold Wilson’s Labor government aborted the new power-projection platforms and withdrew British military forces from the major bases in Arabia (Aden and the Gulf), Southeast Asia (Malaysia and Singapore), and the Indian Ocean (the Maldives) by 1971 - and the United States moved in to pick up the pieces. However, the Royal Navy always kept three minesweepers and at least one frigate or destroyer in the Gulf, supported by a small permanent staff in Bahrain. The RUSI paper suggests this flotilla could be reinforced.


Prof. W. Taylor Fain of the University of North Carolina, Wilmington, in his book, American Ascendance and British Retreat in the Persian Gulf Region (Palgrave Macmillan, 2008), points out that American policy toward the Persian Gulf area solidified “in the early 1970s around a ‘twin pillars’ policy of fortifying Saudi Arabia and Iran to act as lieutenants in the area, checking the spread of the Soviet influence southwards. This was in the spirit of the Nixon Doctrine, which highlighted the extent to which America could not be expected to act as Eisenhower’s doctrine had imagined. Instead America would endeavor to support and strengthen allies in order for them to take on the burden of their own security.”


In a “first-person” statement at the Middle East Strategy at Harvard (MESH) meeting in August 2008, Prof. Fain stated that while the United States worked to integrate the Persian Gulf and Arabian Peninsula into the larger architecture of its Cold War containment policy, Britain struggled to secure its more parochial economic and imperial interests in the region. The United States attempted to ensure the flow of reasonably priced Persian Gulf oil to the West to support the economies and governments of its European and Japanese allies during the Cold War. At the same time, officials in London attempted to safeguard the supply of Gulf oil produced by British companies and defend its military assets in the Gulf region and its colony in Aden. Now that the old Cold War is over and a new one has begun to appear on the horizon, Britain is once more eager to protect its own economic interests in the Gulf and “help out” the United States. London hopes a slice of old imperial interest may get served on that platter in the process, as well.


Months before the RUSI briefing paper appeared, the British moves to consolidate its position in the Gulf had begun to surface. Last November, Britain’s Prime Minister Cameron undertook a visit to the region aimed at securing the sale of up to 100 Eurofighter Typhoon aircraft - a deal that could be worth more than £6 billion (or $9.5 billion). The Saudis already operate 72 Typhoons.


Following his two-day visit, Britain and the United Arab Emirates announced a formal defense and industrial partnership, paving the way for potential deals with BAE Systems for the Typhoon fighter jet. The alliance claims it will “establish a defense industrial partnership that involves close collaboration around Typhoon and a number of new technologies.” The arrangement, which will see the countries increase their joint military exercises and training, is a positive step for BAE and its Eurofighter Typhoon partners EADS.


Cash for Security Deals


In October 2012, British Defense Secretary Phillip Hammond was in Bahrain to sign a defense agreement. The Saudis, Americans, British and Pakistanis had long been busy there keeping the Sunni-Salafist al-Khalifa ruling family in power by helping to physically suppress the majority Bahrainis’ demand for a democratic system. The agreement signed aims at consolidating military cooperation between Bahrain and the UK and maintaining security and stability in Bahrain and the region, in addition to providing backing for Bahrain to stave off any external aggression threatening its sovereignty and territorial integrity. The two sides also pledged to promote cooperation in all fields, including exchanging intelligence and visits, training, education, scientific and technical cooperation, and joint training.


As the RUSI paper points out, the British Chief of Defense Staff (CDS) General David Richards, delivering the 2012 RUSI Christmas Lecture, made a pointed reference to the deployment of UK military assets to the Middle East and, in particular, to some of the Arab Gulf states and to Jordan.


What is particularly revealing in the RUSI paper is the military and financial aspects of the British interest in protecting these sheikhdoms. RUSI notes that the Royal Air Force (RAF) is set to use the Al-Minhad air base in Dubai (currently used extensively as a link in the logistics chain between the UK and Afghanistan) as a hub not only for the 2014 draw-down of troops from Afghanistan, but as an overseas base of some standing in the future.


“The Royal Navy is also taking a more active interest in Bahrain, which is already home to the United Kingdom Maritime Component Command (UKMCC). Reports also suggest that senior army personnel are keen to build on their strong links with Oman. And the Emir of Qatar has reportedly been assured by Cameron of the UK’s commitment to the gas-rich emirate, with Doha a favored location for UK military liaison and co-ordination activities in the Gulf,” Stansfield and Kelly write.


“There is significantly more at stake in this renewed relationship than mere military posturing. By enhancing the UK’s relationships with the states of the southern Gulf, the UK is committing to the security and longevity of the Arab Gulf states - sheikhdoms which display only limited elements of democratization (as understood in the West) and which have taken seemingly contradictory positions towards the Arab upheavals that spread across the Middle East since 2011, opposing the Shia revolt in Bahrain but supporting the Islamist revolutions in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt and Syria. The UK will also find itself very much on the fault line of searing sectarianism, between the Sunni and Shia worlds of Islam, that is increasingly defining the geopolitical landscape of Gulf and Middle Eastern security. With Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and (to a lesser extent) Kuwait all contending with significant sectarian challenges to their internal security, and with Iran and Saudi Arabia engaged in what is so far a sectarian cold war in which the temperature could quite easily rise, the unintended consequences and outcomes of the UK’s strategic embrace of Arab Gulf states should not be underestimated,” the RUSI analysts warn.


Qatar Gets a Slice


“There is some important ground to make up and the Gulf powers, in their military weakness and economic strength, are more pivotal to UK security and prosperity than was the case a decade ago,” Stansfield and Kelly continue. “Trade between the UK and the UAE reached £14 billion last year, and the UAE alone invested £8 billion in UK projects. The biggest single group of UK expatriates - over 100,000 - live and work in the UAE. Qatar is believed to invest around £20 billion in the UK and may soon add another £10–15 billion in infrastructure investment. Qatar is, in any case, the prime supplier of liquefied natural gas (LNG) into the UK, and as demand in the country rises over the next decade, and as storage capacity increases, Qatar’s importance as an LNG trading partner is set to increase.”


Addressing the “twin pillars” policy of the United States adopted during the Cold War era, the authors say that the collapse of the Iranian pillar, with the fall of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the Shah of Iran, in 1979 and the emergence of an anticolonial clerical regime raised serious questions about the stability of the remaining Saudi pillar and, indeed, the continued viability of US policy. They cite repeated military interventions in Arabia and the Gulf, usually in concert with the United States, and the fact that Britain followed the American lead after 1971 and engaged in the wholesale export of advanced weapons systems to Arab Gulf states.


“These usually came with training teams, in addition to military officers already on secondment to the armed forces of these states,” Stansfield and Kelly observe. “As the Anglo-Saudi Al-Yamamah I and II projects show, these were enormously lucrative for the British defense industry and helped successive British governments to subsidize the costs of equipping the British armed forces. The deal, through which the UK received payment in the form of 600,000 barrels of oil per day, to an estimated value of £40 billion over thirty years, constituted the UK’s largest ever export arrangement.”


Complementary to the British imperial interest to protect the Gulf Sheikhs is the financial dependency on the Gulf of a bankrupt Britain. For instance, Qatari investors are now a lifeline to Britain. In a March 10, 2012, article in the Daily Mail of UK, author Edna Fernandes gave a glimpse of the Qatari money buying up the vital assets of Britain. She pointed out that when Barclays Bank was in trouble at the height of the banking turmoil, the Qatar Investment Authority (QIA) emerged as a white-knight-in-shining-armor investor, and became the biggest shareholder. Over at Stratford, the buildings of the Olympic Village - once the games were finished - were taken over by QIA. “Due west lie Harrods and, close by, No 1 Hyde Park, the world’s most expensive block of flats, are also Qatari-owned. A sovereign wealth fund with tens of billions of pounds in assets and a global reach, QIA has already invested £10?billion in Britain, with more planned. Its influence is everywhere,” Fernandes stated.


Qatar owns 20 percent of the London Stock Exchange and, at the other end of the scale, it owns 20 per cent of Camden market and swathes of the Canary Wharf financial district through its majority holding in Songbird Estates plc. And, if you walk into any Sainsbury’s across the UK, remember that Qatar is a major investor, Fernandes added.


But the Britain-Qatar, or for that matter the Britain-Bahrain, relationship is not recent. These relationships go back at least 200 years. Britain’s first contact with the Qatar peninsula was in dealing with pirates in the 18th century. At the time, the whole southern stretch of the Gulf region was known as the pirate coast, and Qatar was no exception. When the Al-Khalifa family left Qatar for Bahrain in 1783, they left a power vacuum that led to the emergence of groups of minor sheikhs claiming suzerainty of the area.


The Al-Khalifa family, which had moved to Bahrain, still exercised effective control over the northwest corner of the peninsula and claimed yet more of Qatar. Likewise, the British considered the peninsula as a Bahraini dependency. The inhabitants of the peninsula did not feel the same attachment to these overlords and rose up into what turned into a major rebellion. The fighting became bitter, and Doha was virtually destroyed.


The British and a Qatari family of British-choice, the Al-Thani family, who rules Qatar even today, saw mutual advantage in recognizing each other. While the British got an opportunity to gain some influence on the peninsula, the Al-Thanis saw that they would gain a paramountcy and legitimacy that would lead to a more secure rule over the peninsula and help resist any more Al-Khalifa family claims. In 1868 the two parties signed a treaty. It was this treaty that would later form the legal basis of Qatari independence.


Secure Gulf to Encircle Iran


Perhaps another interest of almost-equal measure behind imperial Britain’s design to strengthen its military presence in the East of Suez is to encircle Iran - the collapsed pillar of the “twin pillars.” During his visit to the UAE to sign arms sale and defense cooperation, British Premier David Cameron made vocal his “concerns” about Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons program. In this context, it is reasonable to believe that Britain is keen to encircle Iran.


A similar view was heard last December, when Patrick Henningsen, a geopolitical analyst, told Russia Today that one of the reasons for beefing up the British and American presence in the region could be to launch air attacks on Syria and, ultimately, Iran. “They [the West] are blaming Iran for a possible nuclear arms race in the region, that’s a quote from David Cameron only a few days ago. The encirclement of Iran, certainly on a geopolitical scale, is number-one priority. The question is, is this going to be a real military standoff or are we looking at a cold war situation, where we’re just posturing,” he said.


But Henningsen may not be wholly right. While the British are indeed working out a cash-for-military security deal with their old sheikh brothers-in-arms, the Americans have continued to stretch themselves thinner, particularly since President Obama, eyeing the rise of the Asian giant, China, decided to turn his security attention to the Asia-Pacific. The policy, labeled the Asia Pivot, is being envisioned as a major US policy of the future at a time when the United States is bankrupt and its military has been vastly weakened by two long and wasteful wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.


Nonetheless, the Obama administration is pushing ahead with its new-fangled Asia-Pacific security policy. For starters, in South Korea, where the US military continues to have authority over all South Korean military operations in wartime, joint military exercises have been expanded - including in the Yellow Sea in defiance of Chinese warnings. In Southeast Asia, the Obama administration upped the military ante by responding to China’s increasingly militarized claims to nearly all of the mineral-rich South China Sea - through which 40 percent of the world’s commerce passes - by declaring (US-policed) free navigation of the seas a US strategic priority.


Reinforcing Philippine claims to the “West Philippine Sea,” the Pentagon has also increased weapons sales to the Philippines, accelerated joint military exercises, and explored the return of military bases. To complete China’s encirclement, the Obama administration has established a new Indian Ocean base in Darwin, Australia; pursued a tacit alliance with India; and is expanding its “partnerships” with New Zealand and Mongolia (“Reinforcing Washington’s Asia-Pacific Hegemony,” Foreign Policy in Focus, Joseph Gerson, Sept.13, 2012).


In other words, the United States is stretching itself too thin at a time when the Pentagon is undergoing huge budget cuts and reducing naval fleets. It is likely the British reassertion in the Gulf is a mutually worked-out policy with Washington. Simply put, Britain, with its long ties with the Salafi-Wahhabi Gulf sheikhs, will posit itself in the near future once again as the keeper of the Gulf.

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