The Telegraph reported on Monday (HERE that the Secretary of State for Defence Phillip Hammond had dismayed UK allies in the Middle East by pulling out of a high profile engagement to speak at the Manama dialogue, allegedly to focus on the possible changes to the DE&S privatisation. This has been seen as putting in peril UK efforts to secure deals on Eurofighter Typhoon and the expansion of naval basing in Bahrain. Having read the article, Humphrey came to the conclusion that it is a unique ability of the British media to turn any good news story into a disaster from any possible angle.
Its worth noting that the Manama dialogue is not a government organised event but instead one run by the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS). It remains a singularly high profile event, and one that is very much the jewel in the Bahraini crown when it comes to regional events – in an area dominated by ever glitzier air shows, defence exhibitions and ostentatious displays of capability, the ability to host a high profile think-tank event is still extremely important and one unmatched by other nations in the region.
As an event, the UK Government has always provided a high profile level of attendance, as seen this year by the presence of William Hague (Foreign Secretary) and a large delegation of senior military officers including the Chief of the Defence Staff. The Telegraph story would have you believe that the UK was snubbing the entire event, when in fact there was a very high level of representation from across Government.
The story also fails to highlight the signal shift in the UK commitment to the Gulf region since 2010. It is fair to say that the current Government places an extremely high priority on engagement in the Middle East (UK ministerial visits into the region since May 2010 now number in the hundreds). In a region where constant engagement and dialogue make all the difference in supporting relationships (and opening the doors to possible wider opportunities), this step change in meetings has made an enormous difference.
Its not as if Philip Hammond hasn't spent considerable time in the region this year already - indeed he was present only two weeks previously at the Dubai Air Show and like other Ministers has been out several times this year. Indeed it is genuinely getting to the stage where some senior Ministers reportedly encounter each other more in the transit lounge of Dubai Airport than they do around the Cabinet Table!
This should be coupled to the wider reality that the UK defence engagement in the region is currently at a level unsurpassed in peacetime since the ostensible withdrawal in 1971. One only has to look at the MOD newsfeed and service journals to see that the UK has quietly established a very substantial, indeed near permanent, presence in the region across all the nations out there. This ranges from the traditional training teams through to naval facilities in Bahrain and the increased use of Minhad Airbase for the deployment on exercises of Typhoon and Tornado jets on the SHAHEEN STAR series of exercises. This year alone there have been nearly 100 port visits to the UAE by the Royal Navy, and the deployment of the Red Arrows to the Middle East has made front page news across the region, buying a level of diplomatic influence that other nations can only dream of.
Of course it is disappointing when senior Ministers have to cancel their travel plans, but that is the reality of being a Minister – you are not master of your own destiny. In a department where the slow but steady upward delegation of decision making means Ministers need to be involved more and more often, there are arguably barely enough Ministers now to cope with the sheer number of decisions required of them – all of which require considerable thought. This is perhaps another argument in favour of ‘starred officers’ as the presence of senior officers at 3&4* level can help act as a replacement form of access into the UK system, and in a region where visible gestures count for a lot, helps demonstrate that the UK takes the nations in it seriously.
So to suggest that the UK position in the Middle East is weakened due to this decision is absolute rubbish. One only has to look at the wider picture to see that since 2010 there has been a very substantial shift in emphasis to the region which is paying dividends in all manner of areas. The top level visits are one part of a wider strategy which is seeing the UK return to a region in which it has long been missed. The UK presence in the region now is probably stronger and more influential than at any point in a generation. At a time when we do ourselves down far too often as a nation, it is a shame to push a nakedly biased agenda like this and ignore the incredibly positive and advantageous position in which the UK finds itself.
One could argue that mischief making articles like this, suggesting insults and coming up with suggestions of a snub by Hammond smacks more of an agenda by a paper which seems to have been drafted onto the ORBAT of a tiny group of disaffected individuals who seemingly place more importance on capbadge loyalty over their obligations to the Official Secrets Act and implementing the policies of a democratically elected government on issues with which they disagree.