British military base in Bahrain is a "reward" for silence on rights abuses

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Published Sunday, December 7, 2014

Britain is to open a new military base in Bahrain, its first permanent base in the Middle East since it formally withdrew from the Gulf in 1971, drawing concern from Bahraini opposition groups.

Britain said on Friday it had sealed a deal to expand and reinforce its military naval presence in Bahrain that would allow it to operate more and bigger ships in the Gulf on a long-term basis.

The agreement, which was reached at the annual Manama Dialogue regional security summit in Bahrain, calls for the creation of an agency to offer military facilities for British troops at Salman Port.

The Bahraini regime expected to offer military facilities for British troops deployed in Bahrain, and pay most of the $23 million cost for the new military base.

Under the agreement, the Ministry of Defense (MoD) said onshore facilities at the Mina Salman Port in Bahrain, where Britain bases four mine-hunter warships on a permanent basis, would be improved.

The new military base is part of a deal to increase cooperation in tackling security threats in the Middle East, ministers said Friday.

The base, which will now be expanded to include a new forward operating base and a place to plan, store equipment for military naval operations and accommodate Royal Navy personnel, is used to support British Destroyers and Frigates in the Gulf.

"This new base is a permanent expansion of the Royal Navy's footprint and will enable Britain to send more and larger ships to reinforce stability in the Gulf," said defense secretary Michael Fallon.

"We will now be based again in the Gulf for the long term," he added.

It means Britain will have a place to plan and to store equipment and will be able to add to the four mine-hunter warships based in Mina Salman Port, where Britain currently uses US facilities.

"It's the strategic importance of this. Rather than just being seen as a temporary deployment to an area for a specific operational purpose, this is more symbolic of the fact that Britain does enjoy interests in the stability of this region," Nicholas Houghton, head of the British armed forces, told BBC radio.

Britain already retains two sovereign bases on Cyprus in the Mediterranean.

After the 1971 withdrawal from Bahrain as part of the plan to pull out from "East of Suez," Britain ended its troop presence in the Middle East after it withdrew British troops from southern Iraq in 2009, leaving their bases in Basra, which was built after the 2003 invasion.

Bahraini Foreign Minister Khalid al-Khalifa considered the agreement to be a step that bolstered "growing" cooperation between his country and the UK.

Khalid said the deal "reaffirms our joint determination to maintain regional security and stability in the face of challenging circumstances."

"Bahrain looks forward to the early implementation of today's arrangement, and to continuing to work with the UK and other partners to address threats to regional security," Khalid added.

Meanwhile, Bahrain's opposition on Saturday expressed concern over the agreement on expanding the British military base in Salman Port.

"The redeployment of British troops in Bahrain at present is reason for strong concern," five Bahraini societies led by al-Wefaq Society said in a statement.

They said the redeployment of British troops in Bahrain comes four decades after Bahrain gained its political independence and British troops left the Gulf state.

The five societies called on Bahraini authorities to take the opinion of the public into consideration when signing security and military agreements.

They said pressures keep piling on the countries of the region to enter wars, while the public in these countries were totally marginalized.

In a series of statements on Twitter posted on Saturday, renowned Bahraini activist Nabeel Rajab slammed both Bahraini and British governments saying the former bought “british silence by awarding them a military base in Bahrain.”

According to The Independent, opposition groups now fear more police violence in case they oppose the decision to reopen British military base after 40 years.

Foreign military presence and military cooperation with Western countries are common in Gulf countries.

Recently, Gulf states including Bahrain found mutual interests with the United States and European powers in opposing the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) militants, and Bahrain’s crown prince, whose family has been in power for over 200 years, urged on Friday war on "evil theocracy."

The tiny island kingdom is part of a US-led coalition carrying out ineffective airstrikes on ISIS group, which has carved out vast areas of control in Syria and Iraq since last June.

Washington is a long-standing ally of the ruling al-Khalifa dynasty, and Bahrain is home to the US Navy's Fifth Fleet, positioned at less than 190 kilometers from Iranian mainland.

During the Gulf War in 1991, the US military presence became firmly-established with permanent bases and a comprehensive support structure after signing semi-colonial “protective” agreements with all the countries on the Western bank of the Gulf.

Moreover, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf neighbors sent troops into Bahrain in March 2011, reinforcing a crackdown that led to accusations of serious human rights violations.

With Saudi Arabia's help, Bahrain crushed peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations that began on February 14, 2011. The small nation has yet to resolve the conflict between the Sunni-led monarchy and the opposition, which argues that the country’s Shia majority population is discriminated against.

Since the uprising began in February 2011, at least 89 people are estimated to have been killed in clashes with security forces, and thousands arrested and tried.

King reshuffles Bahraini cabinet

Bahrain's King Hamad bin Issa al-Khalifa approved a cabinet reshuffle that saw the departure of three ministers from the royal al-Khalifa family.

According to the decree released by state BNA news agency on Saturday evening, the new cabinet line-up saw the introduction of four new faces while seven members were dropped, including information minister and government spokesman Samira bin Rajab.

The ministers of foreign affairs, interior and finance, however, kept their portfolios in the 17-member cabinet.

The ministries of municipalities and works were merged into one ministry, a measure that was also applied on the ministries of telecommunications and transport, while the culture ministry was canceled.

Prime Minister bin Salman kept his post he holds since 1970.

Bahrain’s elections have stirred a lot of controversy with opposition groups boycotting the process and later slamming the turnout as “ridiculous.”

The main opposition group, al-Wefaq – which withdrew its 18 lawmakers from parliament in protest in 2011 – denounced the vote as a "farce" and called for a boycott.

It claimed the boycott was a success, saying that only 30 percent of voters had cast their ballots, despite the electoral commission putting turnout at 52.6 percent.

(Reuters, AFP, Anadolu, Al-Akhbar)

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