Nick Harvey MP: Vital need to keep open the seas of the Middle East

This is a truncated version of a speech delivered at RAND last Thursday. The full speech can be read here.

The UK has maintained at least two Frigates or Destroyers in the Gulf and Indian Ocean region since 1980. They now contribute to the Coalition Maritime Force based in Bahrain and comprised of sailors and ships from 25 nations.

Its mission is to conduct counter-piracy and counter-terrorism patrols and ensure the safety of the internationally important arteries of global trade in the region. We have a UK naval staff in Bahrain, co-located with the multinational maritime headquarters and we provide the Deputy Maritime Component Commander.

We will seek to provide this key leadership position for as long as the coalition mission is needed. Since 2003, the UK has maintained a presence of Mine Counter Measure Vessels in the Gulf to support operations, conduct historic ordnance disposal and maintain freedom of navigation.

These vessels initially cleared the routes into Iraqi ports after the war in 2003 and have subsequently cleared hazards left over from the Iran/Iraq war of the 1980s. They are very capable units, highly regarded, regularly practised and fully acclimatised to the unique operating conditions found in Gulf waters.

Together with those of other like-minded nations, the UK naval presence forms part of a powerful force that is in place now, and can be called upon to ensure the peaceable use of the seas. Of course, the Royal Navy’s Response Force Task Group could quickly deploy to the region if required.

So, I believe the answer to the question – do politicians have the will and legitimacy to act in defence of the shipping industry – has to be yes. Our will is based on a clear understanding of the vital importance of the flow of trade and energy to and from the Middle East

There exists an economic necessity to preserve the free and legal use of the seas and access to critical strategic areas such as the Straits of Bab-el-Mandeb and Hormuz and key maritime trade hubs such as Dubai and Singapore.

Legitimacy is based on the universal ideal of the freedom of navigation, a right under the maritime regime for the past 500 years. Our presence in the region safeguards our legitimate interests and acts as a deterrent.

We retain formidable Armed Forces; equipped with some of the best and most advanced technology available; and able to project significant power to almost any part of the world. But Defence is as much about preventing conflicts as it is about winning them.

The maritime security role the UK plays in the Gulf is part of that. It is not the gunboat diplomacy of the 19th century. But we can, and will, use all our unique assets – economic, diplomatic, military, political, legal, and cultural – to ensure that our citizens are secure and prosperous in this new era.

* Sir Nick Harvey was the Liberal Democrat MP for North Devon from 1992 until 2015 and Minister of State for the Armed Forces from 2010 to 2012

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One Comment

  • Richard Dean 25th Jun '12 - 6:12pm

    The force seems to have been astonishingly civilized in the way it has simply returned pirates to shore without much more than a stern taking to. Or are more serious steps now being taken? I used to work offshore West Africa, and after having a couple of boats pirated we ended up simply paying local navies for protection – the costs were more or less the same as what we would otherwise have paid in ransoms to get kidnapped people back.

    Perhaps one of the most reliable ways of safeguarding our interests in the region in the long term is to ensure that our interests are also the interests of the populations there, so that local populations see a benefit in keeping those routes open. I hope that we are working towards this long-term goal. Another strategy is to avoid putting all one’s eggs in one basket; does wind energy fall into this category?

    In the meantime, it would be interesting to know how much the operation in the Middle East costs, what the annual value is of the assets and interests it protects, and things like how long it would take between someone shutting down the Straits of Hormuz, say, and us feeling the effects.

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