London: Britain plans to restore a permanent military presence in the Gulf, basing land, air and naval forces in the region, according to a defence think tank with close ties to the Armed Forces.

The withdrawal of all British troops from Afghanistan next year will create a unique opportunity to reverse the “East of Suez” decision that formed a landmark in Britain’s retreat from imperial power, the Royal United Services Institute will say in a paper published on Monday.

Harold Wilson’s government decided in 1968 to close a string of military bases in the Gulf, which had served as a linchpin of Empire for more than a century. The British withdrawal was completed in 1971, allowing the Gulf states to become independent.

The think tank says the Armed Forces are considering a partial reversal of the “East of Suez” decision. “The military intends to build up a strong shadow presence around the Gulf; not an evident imperial-style footprint, but a smart presence,” writes Professor Michael Clarke, its director. “This may not yet be declared government policy,” he writes. “But the UK appears to be approaching a decision point where a significant strategic reorientation of its defence and security towards the Gulf is both plausible and logical.”

The Royal Navy has always kept three minesweepers and at least one frigate or destroyer in the Gulf, supported by a small permanent staff in Bahrain. The paper suggests this flotilla could be reinforced.

The Army plans to use its links with Oman’s armed forces to base troops in the country. This would allow the use of “thousands of square miles of challenging terrain ideally suited to the training of military units in the skills of desert warfare”. Moving equipment and personnel from Afghanistan to the Gulf would be cheaper than bringing them back to Britain, says the paper.

In addition, Britain’s commercial links with the Gulf are increasingly important. Qatar is now Britain’s biggest source of liquefied natural gas. Any deployment would also create a showcase for military equipment, it adds.

The British power in the Gulf came to an end in 1968 when Harold Wilson’s government decided Britain’s military presence “East of Suez” was simply too expensive to be maintained. While the British Royal Navy’s warships have continued to patrol the Gulf, there has been no permanent British base in the region for 42 years. Two assumptions lay behind the “East of Suez” decision: the oil price, then $4 per barrel, would stay at that level, and Iran, then under the Shah, would remain a reliable ally. The demise of both certainties and the ever-increasing wealth of the Gulf help explain why, if the institute’s paper is correct, that decision is being quietly reviewed.

- The Daily Telegraph