Royal Navy's enduring presence in the Middle East

The Royal Navy will maintain “an enduring presence” in the Middle East according to its senior commander in the region. With work on a new £6m headquarters in Bahrain under way, Commodore Keith Blount says the investment is part of a long-term commitment to keep Royal Navy units in the region – building on a constant presence going back more than 30 years.

“As long as our national interests are out here, then there will be a Royal Navy presence here,” said the commodore, commander of the UK Maritime Component Command. 

“Our national interests cut across this region in so many ways – large numbers of British nationals live here, it is a source of much of our energy, we have friendly relations with many nations.”

As long as our national interests are out here, then there will be a Royal Navy presence here.

Cdre Keith Blount, Commander of the UK Maritime Component Command

It is the task of his 80-strong team – who are currently split between the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet headquarters and buildings in the grounds of the American base – to choreograph Royal Navy operations across a vast area embracing the Eastern Mediterranean, Red Sea, Gulf and Indian Ocean almost as far south as Madagascar, more than 2½ million square miles of sea (more than eight times the size of the North Sea). 

On any given day, there are usually upwards of a dozen ships and units deployed in the region, over 1,300 men and women. Typically, two frigates or destroyers are on patrol – one in the Gulf itself, the second in the Indian Ocean – plus four minehunters, permanently based in Bahrain and their mother ship. There are also Royal Navy, Royal Marines and Fleet Air Arm personnel spread around the Arabian Peninsula. 

Nowhere else outside UK home waters is there such a concentration of the Royal Navy ships, submarines, aircraft and personnel, 24/7. And on any one day there are around 3,000 merchant ships moving through UKMCC’s domain. 

“One trillion dollars of trade passes through this region every year,” Cdre Blount stresses. “What would happen if anything affected that is unimaginable. Keeping open these arteries is vital. This is a joint theatre but with a heavily maritime flavour – and by dint of geography will always be one.” 

As part of the ‘end of Empire’ the RN withdrew its forces from the Gulf in 1971. It returned in 1980 during the Iran-Iraq War when British shipping in the region was under threat. 

Since then, it has never left – first under the banner of the Armilla Patrol, later enforcing UN sanctions against Saddam Hussein’s regime, more recently protecting Iraq’s oil platforms in a post-Saddam world, and today, as Operation Kipion, responsible for ‘maritime security operations’ – clamping down on piracy, terrorism and trafficking. 

When UKMCC was formed in the aftermath of the September 11 atrocities in 2001, the staff numbered just eight. It’s ten times larger now and has outgrown its existing facilities.