MANAMA, Bahrain — Britain opened its first permanent military base in the Middle East in more than four decades on Thursday in the Persian Gulf country of Bahrain, giving the U.K. an expansive presence along key international shipping routes.
The UK Naval Support Facility can house up to around 500 Royal Navy personnel, including sailors, soldiers and airmen, in a region where maritime security ensures oil shipments and goods make it from Asia to Europe. British officials have described it as the first permanent British base east of the Suez Canal since 1971.
"The aim of the Royal Navy being out here anyway is to enhance and ensure the maritime security in the region, and whether or not that's law and order on the high seas, countering piracy, countering terrorism, making sure that the high seas are all safe for the free-flow of commerce, the free flow of trade to be able to take place," said Commodore Steve Dainton, U.K. Maritime Component Commander.
Bahrain, located off the coast of Saudi Arabia and just west of its rival Iran, also plays host to the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet. Tense encounters have occurred between U.S. and Iranian naval forces in the Persian Gulf, though military officials say provocations of U.S. navy ships in recent months have halted.
The new British hub makes it easier for the Royal Navy to conduct longer-term deployments in the Persian Gulf and will offer engineering and logistical support for ships. The facility includes sleeping accommodations, sport facilities and recreational areas for troops.
"It offers us a much better base than we've had before, a much more permanent presence and a real infrastructure for our people who are working and operating here all the time," said Commander of the Joint Forces Command of the U.K. Gen. Chris Deverell.
The port would also be able to service mine sweepers and aircraft carriers, though carriers like the HMS Queen Elizabeth will not be able to dock there because the water is too shallow.
The Duke of York, Prince Andrew and Bahrain's Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa were on-hand for the ceremony in Salman Port.
The British first established the HMS Juffair base in 1935 in Bahrain, but the U.S. took over the base after the small island nation gained its independence from the British Empire in 1971.
The re-establishment of the British base was announced in late 2014 and construction started nearly a year later. The name was changed to UK Naval Support Facility on Thursday.
Bahrain, led by a Sunni monarchy, was rocked by Arab Spring-inspired protests in 2011 by its Shiite majority and others aimed at demanding more political freedoms from the ruling Al Khalifa family. The government put down the demonstrations with help from Saudi and Emirati troops.
The ongoing crackdown has seen dozens of activists imprisoned, others exiled, and a major Shiite opposition group dismantled.