This month’s news about the United Kingdom’s (UK) consideration of a permanent military base in Kuwait at the Gulf state’s request marked an important development in London’s return East of Suez strategy. Although the idea is not new, ongoing developments in the region are giving Kuwait’s leadership greater incentive to further diversify Kuwait’s alliances and invest in a closer defense partnership with the British. Ultimately, as the British continue making strategic adjustments in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) with post-Brexit UK foreign policy set on a more assertive role in the Middle East, Kuwait may come to play a greater role in London’s approach to the region.
The UK ambassador to Kuwait City, Michael Davenport, revealed in an interview with Forces Network that his country was considering establishing a permanent military base in Kuwait. He stated: “We’re looking at all the possibilities. We’re not talking about a major deployment I don’t think, but we’re looking at what might work for both the United Kingdom and for Kuwait. As I say, it’s at a very early stage.”[i]
In 2017, Kuwait’s Ministry of Defense invited the British command personnel from the 51st Brigade to take part in military drills (“Eagle Resolve 15”) to simulate a scenario entailing foreign aggression against Kuwait. The British are also taking part in the same exercises in 2019. Also next year the Kuwaitis and the 2nd Battalion Princess of Wale’s Royal Regiment will carry out a Land Overseas Training Exercise to test the operational planning and deployment of forces.[ii] In August, the British Minister of Defense announced London’s intention to sign a military cooperation agreement with Kuwait as part of the UK’s commitment to Kuwait and regional security.[iii]
London’s plans for strengthening its military posture in the GCC have involved several Gulf states. In 2015, the UK and Bahrain solidified plans for a British naval base in the archipelago kingdom which marked the beginning of London’s return to the Gulf region following its formal withdrawal 44 years earlier.[iv] In 2017, the UK and Oman signed military agreements that permit the Royal Navy to use facilities at the Sultanate’s Port of Duqm, situated along Oman’s Arabian Sea coast.[v] For years the Brits have maintained a secret airbase in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) at al-Minhad, situated south of Dubai, which London has used for deploying forces to Afghanistan and to launch airstrikes against Islamic State (ISIS) in Syria.[vi]
The UK is seeking to reassert influence in the Gulf nearly five decades after formally leaving the shores of eastern Arabia. The relative decline of US hegemony in the Middle East and mounting regional instability are two key factors driving London’s quest to present itself to GCC members as an alternative global power capable of promoting stability and security at a time when Washington’s foreign policy credibility is increasingly undermined by contradictory positions on the Qatar crisis, US President Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, plus other issues.
London’s interest in another “unparalleled opportunity” to sell weapons to GCC states like Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s government secured for the UK following Iraq’s 1990/1991 invasion and occupation of Kuwait is an important variable in the equation.[vii] Despite the political and legal controversies of the UK’s arms sales to Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, London has been one of their key weapons suppliers. Between May 2015 and July 2017, the British government licensed $5.3 billion of arms to the Middle East, the main region for such UK exports.[viii] The Gulf states alone amounted to over half of British arms sales worldwide in 2015.[ix] Looking ahead, the weapons trade will continue to be one of the UK’s main sources of influence in the Arabian Peninsula, especially as the GCC states continue with their economic pivot toward China and other major Asian countries.
Kuwait is requesting a permanent British military presence on its soil at a time of much regional tumult, underscored by crises ranging from Iraq’s sensitive security situation and the Yemen war to the dispute over the GCC’s Qatar rift. As a relatively small state surrounded by larger countries with more powerful indigenous military forces, Kuwaiti foreign policy since 1991 has shrewdly balanced the interests and pressures from Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Iran off each other to advance Kuwait’s own interests in protecting its own sovereignty, a highly sensitive issue in the hearts and minds of Kuwaitis as a result of the Iraqi invasion and occupation.
Much like how Qatar hedged its bets beyond the United States as its security guarantor by establishing a joint Turkish-Qatari military base in Qatar, Kuwait’s interest in a permanent British military base on its soil sends a message about the new political role for alternative powers to play as protective covers of smaller GCC states. Clearly the nearly nine-month-old Gulf crisis’ political ramifications, which have entail new concerns about military confrontations between Qatar and the Anti-Terror Quartet (ATQ), have led to different members of the GCC seeking support from an increasingly diversified host of international and regional actors to safeguard about the perceived threats of other members of the sub-regional organization.
Doubtless, the accusations made by Saudi officials against their Kuwaiti counterparts for maintaining close ties with Qatar, allegedly taking a pro-Doha stance in the dispute, after the GCC crisis erupted last year have left many Kuwaitis nervous about their country being the ATQ’s next target after Qatar. Head of the Priorities Committee at the Kuwaiti Parliament, Ahmad al-Fadl, warned of the possibility of his country being exposed to boycotts or pressure.[x] “Food security and medical security are important, especially as the situation is straining in some countries,” he said.[xi]
Kuwait’s own liberal and democratic (by GCC standards) political climate has enabled Islamists—chiefly the country’s Muslim Brotherhood political wing, Hadas—to run candidates and hold seats in the National Assembly, which Kuwaitis understand would probably have to change if the country came under greater pressure from the ATQ to align with the policies of the Crown Princes of Abu Dhabi and Saudi Arabia.
What can the UK realistically offer Kuwait?
At this juncture it is too early to determine whether a permanent British military presence would serve more of a purpose beyond mainly symbolism. Yet putting aside questions about the British possibly being excessively ambitious in the GCC, London’s flexible political agenda is appealing to Kuwait as the UK supports Saudi Arabia and the UAE in Yemen while giving space to Islamists from Saudi Arabia and the UAE in London, backing the Kuwaiti emir’s efforts to mediate a resolution to the Qatar crisis, and strengthening the UK’s alliance with Doha. As Kuwait is keen on maintaining its own pragmatic foreign policy in the region and good ties with actors on both sides of the GCC’s Qatar rift, it is logical for the Al Sabah rulers to see the UK as an increasingly acceptable broker and superpower than can usefully contribute to stability in Kuwait and other Gulf states.
By Shehab Al Makahleh and Giorgio Cafiero