‘East of Suez’ – Theresa May re-opens Harold Wilson’s imperial closure

A special guest blog by Dr. Neil Partrick  www.neilpartrick

Fifty years ago the British Government was struggling with austerity at home and exploring an uncertain international future. Nostalgia for what remained of Britain’s imperialism was not part of the ‘world power’ role that Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson ambiguously advocated when first elected in 1964. He wanted Britain to join the European Economic Community but prioritised the US relationship. Although he refused to send British troops to Vietnam, Wilson was targeted by the left, angry that he had not severed US-UK relations over the war.

Harold Wilson

This combination of financial and political factors made cancelling UK military commitments ‘East of Suez’ a seemingly easy option despite Washington’s blandishments for the UK to maintain its old imperial placement. Arab allies were not happy either. Feeling the decision would make them potentially vulnerable to Iran’s imperial ambitions, they begged and covertly offered financial inducements to Wilson’s Government to remain in the Arabian Peninsula. Given that the Shah was also a close British friend, Wilson’s Government calculated any such risk to the planned pull-out was manageable.

Half a century on, the May Government is trumpeting the UK’s return ‘East of Suez’ as a resumption of a British global role outside of Europe. A modest set of UK bases are once again being established in the Gulf and British officials are arguing that the UK’s national security necessitates that we help face down Iran. Gulf allies are grateful for this historic turnaround, and as the US tries to reduce its own military exposure in the Middle East while continuing to marshal Gulf allies against Iran, it is very happy for Britain to resume a ‘permanent’ military presence.

Wilson wisely kept Britain out of the US’ neo-imperial schemes in Vietnam and terminated the UK’s old imperial role East of Suez. Prime Minister Tony Blair reversed Wilson’s logic by signing up to the post-911 US ambition to reorder the Middle East, starting with Iraq. It seems incredible that 16 years after that debacle began, the current British Government is putting British forces literally in the frontline as US and allied Gulf tensions with Iran mount.

Wilson’s Defence Austerity

In the 1960s the Labour Government carried out a series of defence cuts that effectively ended Prime Minister Harold Wilson’s ambiguous ‘world power’ pretensions. The old aircraft carrier stock was to be wound down, a planned new, larger carrier was axed, and the purchase of the US F-111 fighter was abandoned. The political fig leaf of an ‘independent’ nuclear deterrent (Polaris), however, was maintained.

The announcement in 1968 of an end to the UK’s military role ‘East of Suez’, while not absolute when implemented in 1971, fitted with this trend. Apart from the crown colony of Hong Kong, Britain’s active military involvement in the Far East ended when UK-backed Malaysia’s three year struggle against Indonesia concluded in 1966. Without planning on remaining in Malaysia and Singapore, a UK military presence in the Gulf made little financial or practical sense. Having two months earlier pulled out of Aden after Egyptian troops had vacated Yemen, the East of Suez decision in January 1968 seemed a relatively small affair. Not to the Americans, though.

President Lyndon B Johnson discusses NATO issues with British Prime Minister Harold Wilson.

Maintaining Britain’s historic military presence East of Suez in the face of defence cuts and the Labour Government’s assertion that any future British military action should be UN-backed, was a contradiction. However, Wilson knew that this residual British world power role mattered to President Johnson (pictured with Wilson). LBJ and his diplomats saw this symbolic and practical British presence – in the Middle East as well as the Far East – as a useful adjunct at a time when the US was struggling in its fight against communism in Indo-China. Wilson had refused to send British troops to help the US in Vietnam but, wanting US support for Sterling, had delayed the pull-out. Sterling’s devaluation in 1967 and Britain’s ongoing economic malaise, brought the costs of such commitments back into consideration.

After the implementation of the pull-out in 1971 the UK still had troops in Hong Kong but had stopped being a player in Far Eastern security. However, while Britain had terminated its formal commitments to defend Gulf Arab rulers, it developed an extensive training and defence export role in the Gulf and even retained two air bases in Oman until 1976 to aid the Sultan’s repression of the Dhofar rebellion.

British Naval Forces

Gulf rulers had tried to persuade the Wilson Government to remain in Arabia. In May 1967 Saudi Arabia’s King Faisal had asked the Labour Prime Minister to keep British troops in Aden, believing that all Arabian hereditary rulers would otherwise be vulnerable to Egyptian-inspired Arab nationalism. The Kuwaiti emir promised to discreetly meet the cost of retaining the British presence in the Gulf (1), and thus retain the valued UK commitment to the Al-Sabah family’s defence. Publicly it was a different story. Kuwait politically exploited the UK’s decision as an opportunity to, paradoxically, assert both its Arabness and its sovereign independence, while various southern Gulf entities would for the first time enjoy the trappings of statehood. In advance of 1971, HMG diplomats had encouraged the Arab southern Gulf coastal sheikdoms to form a federation (2) that would cooperate with UK-friendly Kuwait and Oman and, most importantly, Saudi Arabia.

In 1968, the Wilson Government was unable to take proper account of the strategic vacuum it was creating, which the Shah of Iran would try to exploit to the Gulf Arabs’ disadvantage in the wake of Egypt’s political and military defeat by Israel in June 1967. After 1971 both Conservative and Labour Governments would compound the problem by arming Iran alongside US promotion of the Shah as an ostensible Gulf policeman in the wake of Vietnam having curtailed US global ambitions. Following the 1978/9 Iranian Revolution and the outbreak of the 1980s Iran-Iraq war, the UK began to aggressively arm the Gulf Arab states, a trend that expanded following the British role in the US-led coalition that removed Iraq from Kuwait in 1991. The legacy of the 1991 Gulf War was that Britain effectively re-signed the defence commitments to the small Gulf Arab sheikdoms that it tore up in 1968. (In contrast, Britain’s commitment to Oman had never really lapsed, while the UK has never had a formal defence commitment to Saudi Arabia).

In 1971 the extent of the military real estate that Britain actually abandoned in the Gulf was a naval base in Bahrain (given to the Americans) and an air base in Sharjah (given to the newly-formed UAE). However, these were symbols of a corresponding formal UK commitment to defend the Gulf rulers. Cutting that commitment meant that Kuwait, and the three countries whose independent creation directly flowed from Wilson’s decision – the UAE, Bahrain and Qatar – were from 1971 responsible for their own defence. Since 1991, the UK (like the US and France) has periodically signed formal commitments to defend these countries (and Oman), and the RAF has had access rights to several local bases.

Returning East of Suez

Britain's Prime Minister May attends the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Summit in Manama

The current Conservative Government, eager to project a global UK role post-Brexit, sees little problem in what it trumpets as its return ‘East of Suez’ i.e. to eastern Arabia. An expanded British role in Gulf Arab security was a policy objective of the Cameron-led Governments. Since the Brexit decision, Prime Minister Theresa May and her defence ministers have very publicly asserted that Britain is back in the Gulf and that this is intrinsic to UK national security. This is strongly welcomed by Gulf rulers as a welcome reassurance at a time when the US, since Obama, has been wanting a less frontline role in regional security.

In practical terms this has meant that, since 2018, the British navy once again has a facility in Bahrain; an Anglo-Omani naval base is being constructed in Duqm on the Arabian Sea specifically to accommodate a new British aircraft carrier, while a joint training base housing British troops is about to open there; and a planned, albeit modest, British army base in Kuwait only awaits the Emir’s sign-off. In addition, the Emiratis host a British airwing at the Minhad base in Dubai and have invited Britain to station more uniformed personnel there (3). British or jointly-controlled military facilities on the Arabian Peninsula will place the UK front and central should periodic tensions with Iran escalate. Such physical statements of UK defence commitments are primarily intended as a deterrent against threats to Britain’s Gulf allies. Any extended UK military action in their support would necessarily involve far greater deployments of British troops and arms, aided, if not dependent on, US support, and possibly in cooperation with the French who have a naval base in Abu Dhabi.

A half-century ago the Labour Government called time on frontline British exposure in the Gulf. In a very different climate today, Britain is seemingly even more, as the old adage has it, ‘in search of a role’ than it was under Wilson’s Government following ‘the loss of Empire’. The contemporary role the Conservative Government has re-opened for Britain in the Gulf may run considerably greater risks than Wilson’s historical closure.

(1) See pages 195-196, Partrick, Neil, ‘Kuwait’s foreign policy (1961-1977): Non-alignment, ideology and the pursuit of security’, http://etheses.lse.ac.uk/3164/

(2) In the event, seven of them formed the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Bahrain and Qatar opted to be separate states.

(3) See p. 333, Partrick, Neil, Saudi Arabian Foreign Policy: Conflict and Cooperation (IB Tauris, London, 2018).

Dr. Neil Partrick is a freelance Middle East consultant

(Images: Wikimedia Commons)





This entry was posted in British history, European History, French History, Middle East, Public History, Research, Teaching, Uncategorized, World History and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to ‘East of Suez’ – Theresa May re-opens Harold Wilson’s imperial closure

  1. Umit Dönmez says:

    Thank you very much ! I’ve learnt a lot.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Empire Strikes Back? – Passionate Interests

  3. Pingback: The UAE helps the Great British war juggernaut keep on rolling – Next Century Foundation's blog

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