On 30 March, UK Defence Secretary Michael Fallon announced a joint venture between British company Babcock International Group and the Oman Drydock Company to develop a port complex based near the city of Duqm on the Arabian Sea. Mr Fallon specified that ‘this partnership will bring British engineering expertise to help develop Duqm as a strategic port for the Middle East on the Indian Ocean, benefiting the Royal Navy and others.’
During his visit, the Defence Secretary reaffirmed UK-Omani military ties by signing a new Memorandum of Understanding providing for continued military exercises and training between the countries. Mr Fallon also announced that Duqm would be the site of a permanent British military training base that would allow the Royal Navy to ‘deploy at greater length across the region and into Asia-Pacific.’
Oman’s geographic position on the Strait of Hormuz affords the country tremendous tactical importance in the region. The fact that approximately 40 per cent of the world’s oil supplies pass through that chokepoint is a significant reason underpinning the strategic alliances between Oman and Western powers, such as the United Kingdom and United States. Omani-British relations have remained very close since Sultan Qaboos bin Said al-Said assumed power in 1970 and the increasing military integration between the two countries may be seen as the continuation of a long tradition of partnership.
The construction of the port also complements Oman’s increased push towards private sector employment, diversification and industry in the face of consecutive budget deficits and dwindling oil supplies. Recognising that the current dependence on oil revenue will economically cripple the country in the long run, Oman is attempting to position itself as a trading hub. Iranian officials have noted that Duqm could become an important gateway for Iranian trade with the Gulf States, confirming that the port’s military significance is likely to be complemented by increasing regional economic importance and value.
Oman remains a diplomatic broker in the region, refusing to become militarily involved in regional conflicts and maintaining high-level diplomatic ties with Iran in the face of opposition from other Gulf Co-operation Council states. These ties have proven very valuable to US foreign relations, with Sultan Qaboos playing a key role in mediating the interim “Joint Plan of Action” nuclear deal between Iran, the United States, United Kingdom, France, Russia, China and Germany in 2013. The construction of the Duqm port increases Oman’s status as a focal point of trade and diplomacy while maintaining the continuing roles of the US and UK as security guarantors. British and US ships will be among the main users of the facilities at Duqm and the presence of strong military allies may help to mitigate the potential threats posed by the ongoing instability in neighbouring Yemen and the Islamic State (although, conversely, it may also make Duqm an attractive target for IS and its sympathisers).
Looking ahead, the construction of the port has security implications for both the Middle East and Indian Ocean regions.
As the maritime highway for commerce between the oil-rich Gulf States and the economies of East Asia, control and influence over Indian Ocean trade routes is a significant strategic windfall. The developments at Duqm allow the UK and the US to maintain a significant degree of control at this key chokepoint. Given Beijing’s assertive stance in the South China Sea, this strategic asset is of heightened importance to the United States and its allies, including the UK.
Increased military integration between the United Kingdom, the United States and Oman will also provide the US with another foothold in its diplomacy with Iran. The proximity of Duqm to Iran augments the leverage of the United States and Washington’s ability to secure its preferred outcomes concerning nuclear security and disarmament in the region.
The existence of a friendly and state-of-the-art port at Duqm could also aid Australian involvement in Combined Task Forces 150 and 151, naval coalitions of allied states established to counter terrorism and piracy in regional waters. Currently, CTF 150 includes the United States, Pakistan, Canada, Denmark, Australia and the United Kingdom (among others) and operates out of a US Navy base in Manama, Bahrain. Increased capacity and resources based at Duqm would further contribute to the success of CTF 150 and 151.
In summary, Mr Fallon’s announcements herald a move by the UK to consolidate its influence in the region with the potential to contribute to positive economic and security outcomes for Oman, the UK and, indeed, the US and its allies.