Richard Reeve

28 March 2018

Read the primer

UPDATE: This primer was first published in March 2018 and updated in October 2018, June 2019 and July 2019.


This primer explains what presence, relations and obligations the UK military has in the Arabian Peninsula, including the six monarchies of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and Yemen, as well as the international waters of the Persian Gulf, Arabian Sea, Gulf of Aden and Red Sea.


Fifteen years on from the invasion of Iraq and three years after regional intervention in Yemen began, the UK maintains a significant military presence in all the Gulf States. Control of the trade and oil supply routes around the Persian Gulf and Red Sea is also hugely important in British maritime strategy, justifying a permanent naval presence there. In the current decade, the air war against Islamic State and a desire to boost arms sales, contain Iran and to support the future operation of British aircraft carriers has led to a significant enlargement of the British military footprint in the Arabian Peninsula and Arabian Sea. Given concerns about regional human rights violations and the use of British weapons and British military training and assistance in the Saudi-led war in Yemen, this presence has become increasingly controversial.

Key points:

  • The UK has informal defence commitments to at least five regional states but no binding defence obligations to them.
  • The Gulf region has the largest concentration of British military forces outside of the UK, including about 20% of the operational Royal Navy and over 300 personnel embedded with local militaries.
  • The British military presence is dynamic and has expanded since 2013 to include new naval bases in Bahrain and Oman, use of air bases in Dubai and Kuwait, a desert warfare training centre in Oman, and a planned joint fighter squadron in Qatar.
  • Exports to the region are critical to UK military aerospace business models and likely to constitute over half of all British arms exports in coming years. Saudi Arabia, Oman and Qatar are the key markets.
  • Saudi Arabia’s conflicts with Iran, Yemen and Qatar have been major business opportunities for UK arms suppliers but pose risks of escalation and costly military interventions.
  • There is obvious tension between what the National Security Capability Review calls the fundamental values of Global Britain - respect for human dignity, human rights, freedom, democracy and equality – and the UK’s growing military presence in the Gulf States and involvement in the Yemen war.

Read the primer

Image of Red Arrows above Kuwait City. Credit: Defence Images/Flickr

About the Author

Richard Reeve is the Director of the Sustainable Security Programme at ORG. He was formerly Head of Research at International Alert and worked as a Research Fellow with King’s College London, Chatham House and, as a Country Risk Editor, at Jane’s Information Group.


Copyright Oxford Research Group 2017.

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