Imperial Withdrawal Syndrome

British troops on patrol. Aden, 1966.

Great Britain announced her impending withdrawal from the Persian Gulf while I was resident on Bahrain, assigned as a staff officer to the US Commander, Middle East Force. At the time neither myself nor my neighbours, whether British or Bahraini, seemed particularly impressed by that news. Perhaps in early 1968 none of us really believed it would happen. Of course it did.

In this belated effort to understand the policy and process of the British withdrawal as it occurred from 1968 to 1971, I have come to the realisation of its profound significance, both to Britain and to the states of the Gulf. I found those brief four years of intense activity to be no island in time, but rather a critical phase in the continuum of western society’s interaction with the peoples of the Middle East. In this broader perspective, the withdrawal policy and process was as much an extension of the past as a transition for the future.

In January 1968, the British government announced its intention to withdraw its military forces from the Persian Gulf within four years. This decision signalled a dramatic policy shift and came as a disconcerting surprise to the Rulers of the sheikhdoms that had shared a “special relationship” with Her Majesty’s Government for nearly one and one-half centuries.

Not only had the British been treaty bound to manage all external affairs for Bahrain, Qatar and the Trucial States, but London’s political residents and agents had advised the leaders of those Gulf dependencies in virtually all areas of governmental administration. Now that association was to be terminated within four years and the sheikhdoms would be left on their own. The situation raised the question as to how would Great Britain continue to pursue her national interests in the region while adapting to her changed international relationship with the Persian Gulf States?

The diplomatic and military officials at Whitehall had to implement the 1968 decision. Transcendent national interests were readily apparent to them. The mundane realities of domestic, regional and international politics that also applied were not. Yet the manner in which those men contended with and resolved the many quandaries confronted in the course of withdrawal deeply influenced the gulf Great Britain’s forces left behind.

In 1973, fourteen months after the formal British departure, a US congressman noted:

. . . never before in the history of mankind have so many wealthy industrialized, militarily powerful and large states been at the potential mercy of small, independent and potentially unstable states which will provide, for the foreseeable future, the fuel of advanced societies.

As with most political issues, however, the “special relationship” in the Persian Gulf was controversial. Great Britain had survived the ravages of World War II, bombed and battered. Her people had nearly seen foreign domination from the other side, and they knew it. Economically, her industries tottered, while her imperial veins seemed to sap rather than strengthen the homeland. New ideas of nationalism and self-government had permeated her colonies.

Decolonization is Dead

At home, many argued for integration with Europe, even as the heirs of Pitt and Palmerston were subjected abroad to a dreary litany of hastily-drawn constitutions and flag-lowering ceremonies all across the once mighty empire. In the Near East, the enervating Palestinian question gave way to Nasser’s Egypt, culminating with the explosion of British frustrations at Suez in 1956. Taken together, these bitter realities seemed to isolate, to expose as an obsolete anachronism the British position and policy in the Persian Gulf as she entered the decade of the 1960s. In the context of the Cold War, that same position never seemed too necessary.

The elections of 1964 provide a convenient watershed from which to begin an analysis of the decision to withdraw from the Gulf. Both the Tory and the Labour Party platforms reflected the national predilection to look beyond the continent of Europe to Britain’s destiny.

When Wilson’s party won, the new government was clearly intent upon “maintaining a role — not merely a presence — along the former imperial line to the East.”  The new prime minister assured his countrymen that no economic constraints would force him to relinquish “our world role . . . sometimes called our “East of Suez” role . . . ”

The Economist reported that the British government apparently intends to ask its allies for permission to regard the Rhine Army as a part of a reserve that can be switched to the Indian Ocean if need be.

The revitalized interest in British fortunes east of Suez saw businessmen and diplomats alike involved in an aggressive, updated version of the Drang nach Osten (‘Drive to the East’). By December 1965, they had secured a $300 million contract to provide Saudi Arabia an air defence system package, outbidding their surprised American counterparts. This capped a “slow comeback in the Arab world since the Anglo, French and Israeli attack on Egypt in 1956”.

It appeared a new era of British influence had dawned. It was therefore somewhat disconcerting to find a pessimistic note in the 1965 Defense White Paper, hinting at eventual force reductions in Europe and east of Suez because of budgetary considerations. Reaction came swiftly. The Times editorialized that “It would be politically irresponsible and economically wasteful if our bases were abandoned, while they were still needed to promote peace in the areas concerned . . .”

Blame it on Britain

Why should British forces remain in the Persian Gulf? Foreign Secretary Michael Stewart argued that the “main object of policy in the Middle East should be the maintenance of stability . . . particularly with regard to the . . . small states in the Persian Gulf”. Stewart added, “a number of other countries benefit from stability in the Gulf and do not take part in the performance of the duty, but it benefits us to such an extent that it would be foolish for that or any other reason for us to throw the duty aside”.

Resources were tight. Growing political restiveness in the Gulf, in part aggravated by Radio Cairo and given added poignancy as British soldiers died in the streets of Aden, argued strongly with Christopher Mayhew and Enoch Powell for complete withdrawal. But the military presence “benefits us to such an extent”. In an eloquent synthesis of the government’s perception of their dilemma, Stewart ended his testimony by saying:

We are in the process, as it were, of moving from a previous century to a newer kind of world. Our task is to see both that the movement is carried out and that we do not restrict it by mere lack of vision, but also that we do not prevent it by running away and leaving a disturbed situation and a vacuum of power.

British policymakers straddled the horns of that dilemma another year. The 1967 annual Defense Review noted that the “Political arrangements have been made and the practical preparations are underway.” The Economist termed it “more a working out of decisions already taken than a statement of new ones”.

Informed speculation on the cause of the policy switch ranged from acceptance of the government’s economic explanations, to an editorial in Le Monde which alleged that France’s cross-channel neighbor had “continental” ambitions. Harold Hoskins claimed the United States forced the decision by advising their ally to close down, “since they (Britain’s Mideast bases) no longer served any purpose”.

How well did Britain’s withdrawal policy and process serve her national interests after 1971? Certainly, in the immediate aftermath, the oil continued to flow. But, before a sufficient time elapsed to properly evaluate the system Britain bequeathed, the new international relationship was overtaken by events.

In 1973, the combined effects of the world energy crisis and the Arab oil embargo pushed Great Britain to the brink of economic disaster, while powerful if subtle encroachments on the regional political arrangements eroded the tenuous power base of its security establishment.

End of Empire 2.0

Adapted from Great Britain’s Withdrawal From the Persian Gulf 1968-1971, by David James McMunn. Photograph courtesy of Brian Harrington Spier. Published under a Creative Commons license.