British soldier from the Royal Highland Fusiliers training with Omani paratroopers earlier this year during Exercise Jebel Storm. (Crown Copyright 2016)
Major British defence deal with Oman comes under fire
Human rights campaigners say British military support for Gulf monarchies ‘major obstacle’ to campaigns for political reform
Jamie Merrill Friday 20 May 2016 16:02 UTC Last update: Friday 20 May 2016 22:41 UTC
Human rights campaigners have condemned the British government after it announced it would significantly boost its military support to Oman as part of a continued drive to increase Britain’s military footprint in the Gulf region. This week the Ministry of Defence announced that it “intends to look at options” for establishing a permanent training facility in the strategically important country and will boost the infantry training it provides to the Omani military by a third. The new military training agreement between Britain
and Oman, a country that has been criticised for suppressing freedom of speech, comes as Defence Secretary Michael Fallon said the British military was working “more closely than ever” with the authorities in Muscat. Based near the port city of Duqm on the Arabian Sea, the new military facility could provide a permanent base for British troops to train alongside Omani forces. It follows an announcement in March that the UK and Oman will cooperate with engineering firm Babcock International on outfitting a new naval support shipyard to accommodate Britain’s new Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers, which are due to enter service by 2021. Earlier this week, a senior Royal Navy officer said the carriers would most likely be deployed immediately to combat the Islamic State (IS) group. Existing Omani-UK defence ties were further strengthened on Tuesday when Fallon and the Omani government signed a major “Memorandum of Understanding”. It will see the British Army deploy 45 infantry training teams to Oman this year, in addition to the 195 UK service personnel who are already based in the country. Def Sec Michael Fallon has today announced the UK will increase its training effort in Oman 1:03 PM – 17 May 2016 The move to forge closer military ties with Oman follows a controversial deal to establish a new Royal Navy base in Bahrain, which prompted human rights campaigners to label the move a “reward” for Britain’s silence over torture, attacks on peaceful protesters and clampdowns on freedom of speech in the Gulf. The base was billed as a return to military operations for Britain “East of Suez”, but to the embarrassment of UK defence officials it is too small to accommodate the Royal Navy’s new ships, which will be forced to dock in Oman.
Like Bahrain, Oman is strategically located near the Strait of Hormuz, which is used to transport nearly a fifth of the world’s crude oil. Ruled since 1970 by Sultan Qaboos bin Said al-Said, the country is an absolute monarchy and has been condemned for its restrictions on freedom of expression by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, which has detailed increasing numbers of “arrests and harassment of political and human rights activists” in its latest report.
Khalfan al-Badwawi, an Omani human rights campaigner who fled the country in 2013 after being repeatedly detained by police, told Middle East Eye that the high level of British military and diplomatic assistance for the Omani government was a “major obstacle” to reform in the country. He said: “Britain’s military relationship with Oman goes back to the British Empire when Oman was the gateway to India. It’s a major obstacle to human rights campaigners in Oman because of the military and intelligence support from London that props up the Sultan’s dictatorship.”
Speaking earlier this week, Fallon said the training agreement underlined Britain’s commitment to “increase partnerships” in the Gulf. He said: “Oman is our friend. We are working more closely than ever with them across military, counter-terrorism and intelligence fields to tackle shared threats to stability.” The UK has licensed almost $1.45bn of arms to Oman since 2010, according to the Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) pressure group. Britain’s willingness to engage with the militaries of Gulf states was underlined earlier this month when soldiers from Bahrain joined troops from Jordan, Lebanon and Nigeria in a training exercise at the British Army’s Infantry Battle School in the Brecon Beacons mountain range in Wales, to the dismay of rights campaigners.
Andrew Smith, of CAAT, said that the despite a deteriorating human rights situation in Oman and Bahrain, the “UK government is pulling out all the stops to get even closer to both regimes”. He said: “There has been a particular focus on arms sales and military cooperation, with little regard for those being tortured and imprisoned for peaceful protests. The UK should be using its influence to call for human rights and meaningful change, not to boost and empower dictatorships.”
Andy Slaughter, the Labour shadow minister for human rights, said: “Neither historical relationships nor trade and defence deals should encourage the British government to turn a blind eye to human rights abuses. Of course, it is a matter of degrees and Oman is not the worst offender, but where Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch indicate serious concerns, then this should be reflected in what is said and done by ministers.”
In a speech in parliament on Wednesday, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said that British foreign policy should have human rights at its centre. “In foreign policy we must put our promotion of human rights at the centre. We cannot continue to turn a blind eye and, worse, sell arms to countries who abuse human rights either within or beyond their borders,” he said.
Cranes standing at massive dry-dock and ship repair facility in Duqm Special Economic Zone
2016/05/29 Issue: 58 Page: 8
The Arab Weekly
DUBAI – The United Kingdom has concluded an agreement with Oman to establish a permanent naval base near the new Duqm port being developed in a remote town on the Arabian Sea. The announcement comes just months after construction began in Bahrain for the United Kingdom’s first permanent naval base in the Middle East since 1967.
The UK-Oman agreement involves a joint venture between Babcock International Group and Oman Drydock Company to create modern naval support services facilities at the new base. Oman Drydock Company (ODC) has given the ship repair yard and two dry docks at Duqm port, inaugurated in June 2012, on long-lease to South Korean company Daewoo Shipbuilding & Marine Engineering.
According to British Defence Minister Michael Fallon, the base in Oman will help establish “a permanent training hub” in addition to a key military logistics centre that “will bring British engineering expertise to help develop Duqm as a strategic port for the Middle East on the Indian Ocean, benefiting the Royal Navy and others”.
There is high demand for naval support services in and around the Arabian Gulf, including from the Royal Navy of Oman (RNO), as naval modernisation takes shape.
The new naval support services facility will provide support to two 65,000-tonne aircraft carriers being built for the UK Royal Navy as well as the British-built, multi-role guided-missile Khareef-class corvettes recently inducted into service with the RNO.
BAE Systems executed a $650 million contract awarded by Oman for three corvettes. The Khareef-class corvettes rank among the most capable and most modern warships operated regionally.
Oman is seen by Britain as an important partner and was described by Fallon as “a source of stability in the troubled region”. A former British protectorate, Oman has long-standing defence ties with the United Kingdom, which remains its main arms supplier. In 2012, Oman signed a deal valued at about $4 billion for 12 Typhoon multi-role jets and eight Hawk Advanced Jet Trainer aircraft, including in-service and training support.
British officials have developed a plan to establish an army training base in Oman, which is viewed as a force of moderation in a region prone to political polarisation and therefore has an important role to play in regional crises. That perception was reinforced in recent years as Muscat performed a crucial back-room role in brokering tensions between Iran and the West.
Oman also plays an important role in overseeing the passage of international shipping through the Strait of Hormuz, through which some 30% of globally bound oil passes every day.
Duqm port and dry docks are part of the most ambitious projects ever undertaken in Oman, where the leadership is aiming to develop a major trade and logistics hub. Oman plans to construct a new airport, rail network and oil and gas pipelines connecting with Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries as well as refineries, oil and gas storage terminals, a petrochemical complex and warehousing facilities around an integrated free trade zone in Duqm.
If Duqm port yields the results the Omani leadership is hoping for, observers say it could challenge the traditional dominance of Dubai by creating another viable regional trading centre that removes the potential risks and costs of transiting the Arabian Gulf. Duqm could also become even more significant strategically from a defence and international security perspective and this would provide the United Kingdom enormous operational flexibility for its forces in the region.
Combined with the new naval base in Bahrain, which is already home to the largest permanent detachment of the British Royal Navy outside the United Kingdom as part of the Combined Maritime Force, which includes the US Navy 5th Fleet in Manama, the United Kingdom can be expected to deploy a much wider and modern range of naval assets in the region than it has for generations.
At the same time, Oman will benefit from its deepening ties with the United Kingdom because they not only add to its regional influence and boost national security but also align well with its wider economic goals for Duqm by supporting industrial growth.
Sabahat Khan is a senior analyst at the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis (INEGMA).
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