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Royal Navy Base: Bahrain

Volume 649: debated on Tuesday 20 November 2018

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the strategic importance of the new Royal Navy base in Bahrain.

I am pleased to introduce this debate about the strategic importance of the new Royal Navy base in Bahrain, HMS Juffair. I draw hon. Members’ attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, which shows that I have a long-standing and significant interest in the Kingdom of Bahrain. I have been going there for a number of years, most recently in October to look at the new naval base.

Let me explain briefly what the base is and what it does. It is a small but perfectly formed facility that, in simple terms, allows ships to be tendered, administered and maintained more efficiently. Up to a company group of people can live on the base—there are around 500 bed spaces. I was honoured to receive tremendous hospitality on my interesting visit in October, which was led by Commodore Steve Dainton, commander of the UK maritime component. I was pleased to go aboard the mine countermeasures vessel HMS Blyth and to discuss its role with Captain Drewett and the ship’s company. I would also like to put on the record the tremendous work that is being done by the defence attaché, Commander Paul Windsar, and of course the overall leadership that is provided by our ambassador in Bahrain, Simon Martin.

Most importantly, the base will allow our fleet of mine countermeasures vessels to make their contribution to the Combined Maritime Forces. Type 23 frigates will be able to use the base, too—it is my understanding that a Type 23 will soon be based there permanently—and destroyers and other vessels will also be able to take advantage of what it offers. The base is a huge step forward. It is the first new naval base in the middle east since 1971, and we should all wholeheartedly welcome it.

The base is hugely important to our bilateral relationship with the Kingdom of Bahrain. Many of us know that we have a long-standing relationship of at least two centuries with the kingdom. Because of the pressures it faces due to its location vis-à-vis Iran, the Bahraini state feels a sense of existential insecurity. It therefore relies on its allies to stand with it through thick and thin, and I am proud that this country has done that. Our tangible, permanent commitment to having a Royal Navy presence in the kingdom is of huge importance to our Bahraini friends. In fact, it is so important that they have been prepared to pay most of the costs of the base. That is of huge advantage to us—it allows us merely to man the facility. The reassurance the base provides our ally should not be understated.

That reassurance has a regional element, too. I mentioned that the mine countermeasure vessels contribute to the Combined Maritime Forces. Not many people know about that, but it is hugely important. It is a multinational force of some 33 nations that promotes the free flow of commerce over a huge area of the ocean—3.2 million square miles of international waters, not just in the Gulf but in the Red sea, the gulf of Aden, the Somali basin and the Indian ocean. The mine countermeasures vessels that Commodore Dainton commands make a hugely important contribution to that, in one of the most important areas for global trade.

My hon. Friend is bringing to the House’s attention an important part of the Royal Navy’s expanding programme. Does he agree that, in a post-Brexit world, we will continue to be a global maritime nation? Geography and the way our trade works dictate that. The work that we will be able to start from Bahrain to keep those difficult waters open is critical to the UK’s future economic growth.

Indeed. Our contribution to global free trade and the free flow of commerce around the world will be more important than ever, and we are uniquely well placed, along with our allies—the United States and others—to play a key role in that.

I believe we are the only European country with such a base in the Arabian Gulf. Will my hon. Friend use his expertise in the region to continue to probe the Government about what steps are being taken to work with other Gulf Co-operation Council countries to ensure that the base is supported and expanded, given that more than 60% of the world’s oil flows through the Arabian Gulf?

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. I will mention that shortly, but absolutely, we should see this base as a model for the way we work with other GCC allies. I know there is significant appetite in Oman and Kuwait, for example, for greater co-operation between our militaries.

As my hon. Friend points out, we must remember that some 20% of the world’s oil flows through the strait of Hormuz. That is astonishing. The area of operations of the Combined Maritime Forces is at the epicentre of global trade, and we have a disproportionately positive impact on that. We have four mine countermeasures vessels, whose value and contribution is out of all proportion to what they cost us.

The base represents a significant defence engagement win. I am pleased that the Government have a defence engagement strategy, which was published in 2017. Of course the naval base has been in gestation since 2014, but it is good to see these themes and intent formalised in that document. The strategy is just a reminder—what we see in Bahrain is an illustration of the fact—that defence can be a tremendously positive agent of foreign policy and is intertwined with our foreign policy objectives. Defence is not just about kinetic war-fighting operations; it can lead to tremendously important diplomatic and commercial outcomes.

I agree with what my hon. Friend is saying. Does he agree that we must remember that if we, as a western democracy, do not engage, others will be only too happy to fill the void, as we see with the Chinese military base in Djibouti?

My hon. Friend makes an extremely good point that runs to the heart of the matter. If we wish to project our global influence on a basis that suits us and represents the values we stand for, we must do so. If we do not, others will, and they will do it less well and the outcome for everyone in the region will be worse. The national security objectives are clearly laid out. They are to protect our people, promote prosperity, and project our global influence. I am confident that all those objectives are met by us having our base in Bahrain.

Many people will be disturbed to hear the hon. Gentleman refer to a close friendship with a country that has such a dismal human rights record. Will he use his relationship and experience with the Bahraini authorities to press them? If we are talking about our global influence, we should press those authorities to review their human rights record.

The influence and close relationships that we have allow us to do exactly that, and I encourage the hon. Lady to visit the Kingdom of Bahrain at the earliest opportunity to see the reality for herself.

My hon. Friend is being gracious with his time. I served in Bahrain and the Gulf in operations in 2009 on HMS Kent, and I agree with everything he says about our influence in the region. He ran through the practical opportunities that having a base in Bahrain gives us, but does he agree that it is also a physical embodiment of what we are all talking about, namely global Britain? As we leave the European Union, such things demonstrate that we are not retreating from the global stage, and they are a demonstration of our intent not just east of Suez but around the world.

My hon. Friend is right. This is a demonstration of a model that perhaps we should use in other places in future. This is not just about the Royal Navy, because the capacity for the Army to stay as a company group at the UK naval facility in Juffair presents tremendous training and partnership opportunities with the Bahraini army, which would be to its benefit and to ours. That spirit of enduring partnership is the driver behind all this.

Will the Minister give us his judgment on the success of the establishment of the UK naval facility, perhaps say whether he agrees that we should use this model in other Gulf Co-operation Council states, and say whether on a global basis we can perhaps do such things in other parts of the world? I conclude by reiterating my gratitude to all those currently serving in the UK naval service, not just the ship’s company of HMS Blyth, but those serving in the Combined Maritime Forces and the UK maritime component in Bahrain. Their daily vigilance contributes significantly to the freedom and prosperity that we in this country enjoy.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts, and I am particularly grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Leo Docherty) for securing this debate. As we have heard, he and other colleagues take a keen interest in defence and security developments in Bahrain and the wider Gulf region.

His Royal Highness the Duke of York officially opened the United Kingdom naval support facility in Bahrain on 5 April this year. It epitomises the importance that the UK places on its relationship with Bahrain and the security of the Gulf region, and the emphasis that the Ministry of Defence is placing on global Britain. It is the first permanent overseas Royal Navy establishment operating east of Suez in almost half a century, and part of the commitment to the Gulf region that the Prime Minister promised in Manama in December 2016, when she underlined her undertaking that:

“Gulf security is our security”.

The UK NSF, which was a gracious gift of His Majesty King Hamad to mark the 200th anniversary in 2016 of our strong and enduring bilateral relationship, has increased the capabilities that already existed in Bahrain. It will allow the Royal Navy to provide better support for its vessels, including new aircraft carriers, and it has enabled the UK to permanently assign a Type 23 frigate to the Gulf from next spring. The UK NSF has been planned for long-term utility, strategically situated alongside the US navy 5th fleet, and it is one of our most advanced naval facilities. I stress that the complex is not a naval base as such because there are no dry docks, but we more recently opened a joint logistical support base at Duqm in Oman—I was honoured to be there for that opening—which will have dry docking capability for all Royal Navy ships.

The UK NSF is a joint asset and operates under Permanent Joint Headquarters command within the Operation Kipion joint operational area. The facility’s primary function is to provide appropriate levels of real-life support to personnel deployed to Bahrain, whether permanently shore-based, on contingent operations, on a deployed maritime unit or on short-term theatre visits. After PJHQ operational requirements have been met, UK NSF still has additional capacity to host around 100 visitors, with a surge capacity of an additional 300, up to a maximum site capacity of 549. It also provides engineering and logistics support to maritime units, and can host contingent forces for short periods. The capability is split into three broad categories: accommodation, welfare, and technical. Primarily, it supports our deployed naval force in the Gulf, providing maritime security for Bahrain, the wider region and the global economy.

As my hon. Friend said, the most important aspect of the UK NSF is what it enables our ships and people to deliver on operations. As I speak, five Royal Navy warships and two Royal Fleet Auxiliaries are deployed in the region, operated and supported by more than 1,500 personnel. They include our mine countermeasures force, which has been permanently based in Bahrain since 2006 and, as my hon. Friend said, is very much considered the jewel in the crown of the force by the Americans. The MCM force is made up of five ships—four mine countermeasures vessels supported by a Royal Fleet Auxiliary ship. That force conducts route survey and clears mines from the sea bed, as it did after the 2003 Iraq war, enabling the safe navigation of the waterways.

The Combined Maritime Forces, headquartered in Bahrain, is a coalition of 33 nations aligned in common purpose to conduct maritime security operations and provide security and stability. HMS Dragon, one of the UK’s Type 45 destroyers, is currently operating under the command of the CMF, as the latest example of the UK’s enduring commitment to the coalition. The CMF conducts operations to counter a broad range of threats to maritime security, from piracy to the transport of narcotics, weapons and other illicit cargoes that fund and fuel terrorism and criminal networks. It has had a great deal of success—this year alone it has seized more than 46 metric tonnes of heroin and hashish, with a combined estimated value in excess of £43 million, at wholesale destination ports in the Gulf region. The street value in the UK would be many times that figure. The CMF has helped to bring about a significant reduction in piracy incidents since they peaked in 2010. The UK NSF provides the UK with a maritime centre in the region from which to respond to future humanitarian crises or natural disasters, and to conduct operations to protect the waterways and ensure the continued free flow of commerce. It makes possible our commitment to the enduring task of maritime security operations in the region.

Reinforcing the Prime Minister’s undertaking in 2016 that Gulf security is our security, the then Foreign Secretary announced that the UK would be spending £3 billion on defence commitments in the region over the next 10 years. It is clear that we cannot afford not to do so—as has been said, 40% of global oil production is shipped through the strait of Hormuz between our close ally Oman on one side and Iran, which is a challenge, on the other. It is the world’s most important maritime choke point. The wider Gulf contains two more of the world’s eight recognised maritime choke points, with the Bab-el-Mandeb at risk of miscalculation emanating from the persistent and tragic conflict in Yemen.

The Minister has outlined the important practical aspects of the base, and he referred to Iran as a “challenge”. Does he agree that the base also has an important political symbolic aspect, which is that the United Kingdom will never tolerate any interference in the sovereignty of Bahrain?

Indeed. My hon. Friend makes a valuable point that returns to the Prime Minister’s statement that Gulf security is our security. We have a long-standing relationship with Bahrain. This facility is part of that historic relationship, and we will continue to play our part in the region, as I am demonstrating. The political statement is there for all to see.

The facility is of great importance to the Royal Navy, but I should be grateful if the Minister would touch on how it shapes changing deployments, and in particular how there can be greater crew rotation on ships when they are permanently forward-deployed in the Gulf rather than having to steam from Britain, including from such fantastic ports as Devonport, off to the Gulf and back again.

That is a valuable point. Of course, historically, in the deployment of frigates and destroyers much time has been lost in transit to the region, and the time taken affects their ability to be on operations. The naval support facility will, as I mentioned earlier, enable us to forward-deploy in the first instance a Type 23 frigate for a sustained period—far longer than the initial six months, because the vessel itself will stay in the region, getting rid of those transit times. Because of the facilities that we have there, we shall simply be able to rotate the crew through by aircraft. That means that the facility is far better for the crews. The accommodation is far superior to that on a ship. Equally, there is more predictability about the deployment; from a family perspective deployments are more set, as they come without some of the challenges of having to move the ship around the world. All in all, not only is the facility great for our persistent presence in the region; it is of major benefit to crews and families, so I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making that point.

On 7 July 2015, the National Security Council agreed a Gulf strategy to protect and promote the UK’s interests in the six Gulf Co-operation Council states, recognising their importance in addressing direct threats to the UK from terrorism, extremism and organised crime, for our energy security and for wider regional stability. The NSC Gulf strategy is delivered through increased and integrated cross-Government engagement and activity, including working with partners, allies and international organisations. Aligned with the strategy, the MOD has a leading role in promoting regional security and stability, not least by its contribution to multinational forces engaged against Daesh and other violent extremist organisations and malign influences, thereby deterring aggression and combating transnational crime in the Gulf and beyond. We are working more often and more closely to build the capability of Gulf states’ security forces, promoting our high standards of operational effectiveness and conduct.

The UK’s commitment to Gulf security has been epitomised by Exercise Saif Sareea 3 in Oman, which I was privileged to open last month. It finished on 5 November with an impressive firepower demonstration attended by all GCC countries along with wider middle east and global partners. It was the UK’s largest bilateral exercise for 17 years, since Saif Sareea II, with 5,500 UK troops deployed alongside 70,000 Omanis. Elements of the UK force are now conducting defence engagement activity with our other GCC partners. Saif Sareea 3 has been a tremendous success, not only as a military exercise but also in view of the fact that it has involved cross-Government Ministries in Oman working in close co-operation with counterparts from Her Majesty’s Government on crisis response and resilience activity. It has been an exemplar of HMG fusion activity, underpinned by a detailed strategic communications campaign that has seen the exercise dominate Omani print and social media for almost its entire month-long duration, with extensive exposure across the Gulf.

I want to underline why the base has such an impact across the region, including with other nations. During his visit at the beginning of November the Secretary of State for Defence announced the Oman-British joint training base, further delivering on the Prime Minister’s Manama commitment. That relates to the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot made about how we can continue the process. The new training facility will be tested with its first joint exercise with the Omanis in March next year. It will be supported by the joint logistics support base at Duqm, which, as I mentioned, I had the honour of opening at the beginning of Saif Sareea 3 in October.

Saif Sareea 3 has been far more than just a bilateral military exercise. It has been a demonstration of our commitment to Oman and the wider Gulf region and will leave behind a legacy for decades to come. The Secretary of State for Defence underlined our commitment to the region when the UK NSF was opened in April:

“Our Armed Forces are the face of Global Britain and our presence in Bahrain will play a vital role in keeping Britain safe as well as underpinning security in the Gulf.”

He went on to say—and I agree wholeheartedly:

“Britain is a major player on the world stage and this new Naval Support Facility will help us tackle the growing threats to our nation wherever they are across the globe and protecting our way of life.”

That is exactly the point that many of my hon. Friends have made during the debate. Furthermore, in the context of global Britain, the UK NSF will be the hub of our naval operations across the Indian ocean and potentially further afield for decades to come. I hope I have given Members the assurance of the strategic importance of the Royal Navy’s new facility in Bahrain.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.