Middle East Analysis

The UK in the Gulf

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Photo by Richard Baker / In Pictures via Getty Images 

In the post-Brexit world, the United Kingdom will rely on non-European alliances, some old and some new, to maintain and strengthen its position in the world. The Gulf region will be a particularly important area as the UK pursues its interests.

The UK is deepening its trade, military and defence arrangements with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Oman and Qatar. It also has long-established partnerships with Saudi Arabia and Kuwait and is looking to enhance its role in these states too.


The UK’s expanding focus on the region was signaled by the opening of a permanent naval base, HMS Jaffair, in Bahrain, which was announced in 2014. The al-Minhad air base near Dubai was also used during the UK’s campaign against ISIS.

This new imperative for the UK means it must take on a nuanced role, diplomatically, in the regional sectarian power struggle. London remains committed to Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, aka the ‘Iran Nuclear Deal’, which was signed on 14 July 2015. In return for reducing its nuclear programme and allowing international inspections, Iran received sanctions relief. The US has abandoned the plan, but the UK and other European powers remain committed, although face an uphill struggle to save the deal.

Despite its stance on Iran that runs contrary to the United States’ approach, the UK is broadly aligned against Iran in its regional loyalties. It has therefore committed itself to the survival of the following regimes:

  • Bahrain. An autocracy which used violence in response to Arab Spring protests in 2011, aided by Saudi Arabia. The UK has expressed concerns about human rights abuses on the tiny Gulf island. The country has a Shi’a majority but is ruled by Sunnis.
  • Kuwait. Ruled by a hereditary Emir. Has a large Shi’a minority.
  • Oman. Ruled by Sultan Qaboos bin Said al Said since 1970. He holds the positions of prime minister, supreme commander of the Armed Forces, minister of defense, minister of finance, and minister of foreign affairs. There are serious human rights concerns in Oman, notably around freedom of speech.
  • Qatar. An absolute monarchy and ally of London. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt cut diplomatic and trade ties with Qatar in 2017, imposing a sea, land and air blockade, claiming it supported “terrorism” and was too close to Iran.
  • Saudi Arabia. The most well-known of the UK’s Gulf allies among the UK population, and the one over which there is most pressure to introduce changes to the relationship. An absolute monarchy that is leading the war on Yemen. Domestically, there are serious human rights concerns. The UK government has resisted pressure to stop arms sales to Riyadh, but opposition parties have said they would stop sales.
  • United Arab Emirates. The Emirates consist of seven dynasties lacking in electoral democracy and with serious concerns over human rights.

Despite the entrenched anti-democratic practices of these states, the UK is committed to its partnerships. This means that it must tread the fine line between maintaining what it sees as vital strategic and economic partnerships and promoting and applying its stated liberal and democratic values.

Stabilising Role

Under President Barack Obama, US foreign policy shifted somewhat away from the Gulf. Nevertheless, the area remains of utmost strategic importance and the UK sees itself fulfilling a stabilising role in the region, for its own interests and on behalf of its traditional American ally.

The 2015 UK Defense and Security Review commented on the Gulf: “We work together to support peace and stability” with a “permanent and more substantial UK military presence”.

In 1971, it appeared that the UK was withdrawing from the Gulf region following the withdrawal of its troops from East of Suez. However, the UK has retained interests and continued to play an active military role in the region. That role now appears to be deepening.

Since 1971, the absence of conventional military force has been replaced by increased arms exports to allied regimes, signalling the same level of commitment to those regimes’ survival as pre-1971. The UAE and Qatar host air bases for the UK, a new naval base was opened in Bahrain in 2018 and enhanced military roles have developed in Oman, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.

With Brexit, the UK could seek to strengthen these ties further, which will only increase its interest in maintaining the status quo in the region. However, its ability to do so will depend on regional power struggles and domestic politics both within the Gulf states and in the UK.