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East of Suez is used in British military and political discussions in reference to interests beyond the European theatre, and east of the Suez Canal, and may or may not include the Middle East. [1] The phrase was popularized by Rudyard Kipling in his 1890 poem Mandalay. [2] It later became a popular song when a tune was added by Oley Speaks in 1907. [3]

Ship me somewheres east of Suez, where the best is like the worst,
Where there aren't no Ten Commandments an' a man can raise a thirst;

19th century

The opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 provided the shortest ocean link from Britain to the Far East by making the long journey around the Cape of Good Hope unnecessary. [4] With the 1882 invasion and occupation of Egypt, the United Kingdom took de facto control of the country as well as joint control along with the French over the Suez Canal – which had been described as the “jugular vein of the Empire”. [5]

The canal and the imperial outposts east of the canal were of genuine strategic value to the British Empire [6] and its military infrastructure drew on sea lanes of communication through the Mediterranean Sea via the Suez Canal, alternatively round the Cape of Good Hope to India, and on to East Asia ( Brunei, Burma, Malaya, Hong Kong, North Borneo, Sarawak) and Australia.

20th century

The fall of Singapore to the Japanese on 15 February 1942 damaged the empire as it lost a strategic imperial outpost and laid the seeds of the collapse of British imperial power, post World War II. [7] Then, with Indian independence in 1947, there was a gradual draw-down of the military presence "East of Suez", marking the collapse of the empire. [8] [9]

The Suez Crisis—a diplomatic and military confrontation in November 1956, caused by the nationalization of the Suez Canal by Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser—ended in Egypt taking full control of the canal. The economic and military influence of Britain over the region was marginalized, limiting its control over the bases in the Middle East and South East Asia. [9] [10] [11]

In January 1968, a few weeks after the devaluation of the pound, [1] [8] Prime Minister Harold Wilson and his Defence Secretary, Denis Healey, announced that British troops would be withdrawn in 1971 from major military bases in South East Asia, "east of Aden", primarily in Malaysia and Singapore [12] [13] [14] as well as the Persian Gulf and the Maldives [15] (both of which are sited in the Indian Ocean), which is when the phrase "East of Suez" entered the vernacular. In June 1970, Edward Heath's government came to power and retained a small political and military commitment to South East Asia through the Five Power Defence Arrangements. [16] Prior to the 1997 handover of Hong Kong to China, Britain based several units in Hong Kong.

21st century

Ships of UK Carrier Strike Group 21 transiting the Suez Canal in July 2021

In April 2013, the British think tank the Royal United Services Institute published a report which stated that Britain is in the process of a strategic shift back to an east of Suez position. The report stated that a permanent military presence was being established at Al-Minhad in the United Arab Emirates, by the Royal Air Force, as well as the continuing build up of British troops in the Persian Gulf states as Britain begins to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan. Furthermore, the report argued that as Britain begins to relocate its troops from Germany by 2020, the British base in the UAE could become their permanent home. [17]

The think tank went on to explain that as the United States begins to concentrate more on the Asia-Pacific region in its attempt to balance China's rise as a world power, a strategic vacuum would emerge in the Persian Gulf region which was incrementally being filled by Britain. This shift of troops to the UAE coincided with establishment of the Royal Navy's UK Maritime Component Command (UKMCC) in Bahrain. In December, the UK's Chief of Defence Staff Gen Sir David Richards said: "After Afghanistan, the [Persian] Gulf will become our main military effort". [18] [19] Overall this would signal a reversal of Britain's East of Suez withdrawal. [20] [21]

In 2014, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office announced that the UK would expand its naval facilities in Bahrain to support larger Royal Navy ships deployed to the Persian Gulf. HMS Jufair is the UK's first permanent military base located East of Suez since it withdrew from the region in 1971. The base will reportedly be large enough to accommodate Type 45 destroyers and Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carriers. [22] [23] [24] The Strategic Defence and Security Review 2015 stated new British Defence Staffs will be established in the Middle East, Asia Pacific and Africa in 2016. [25] [26] In 2017, the UK Joint Logistics Support Base was established in Oman, followed by a new Omani-British Joint Training Area in 2019. [27] [28]

Britain maintains a Jungle Warfare Training School in Brunei, and a battalion of the Royal Gurkha Rifles in addition to some aircraft of the Army Air Corps as part of the British Military Garrison Brunei. [29] There is also a small British military presence remaining on Diego Garcia in the British Indian Ocean Territory, and a refuelling station (manned by Royal Navy personnel) in Sembawang, Singapore, as part of the Five Power Defence Arrangements. [30]

See also


  1. ^ a b Britain's Retreat from East of Suez: The Choice Between Europe and the World? by Houndmills and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002. xv + 293 pp. $65.00 (cloth), ISBN  978-0-333-73236-6, Published on H-Levant (December, 2002)
  2. ^ "Mandalay" by Rudyard Kipling (1890)
  3. ^ Oley Speaks (1874–1948) on IMDB
  4. ^ "The Suez Crisis of 1956". History Learning Site.
  5. ^ Archives, The National. "Glossary - S".
  6. ^ "The British Empire in Europe".
  7. ^ Japan's gigantic second world war gamble, Guardian
  8. ^ a b Darwin, John Britain, the Commonwealth and the End of Empire
  9. ^ a b Peterson J. E. Postwar Policy: British Retreat And Imperial Vestiges Archived 2015-04-21 at the Wayback Machine in Defending Arabia. London: Croom Helm; New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1986. ISBN  9780312191146
  10. ^ H-Diplo Article Commentary: McDougall on Benvenuti
  11. ^ Anglo Libyan relations and the British military facilities 1964-1970 Archived 2013-12-20 at the Wayback Machine by Sean W Straw BA MA, University of Nottingham
  12. ^ "What Now for Britain?” The State Department’s Intelligence Assessment of the “Special Relationship,” 7 February 1968 by Jonathan Colman
  13. ^ Pham P. L. Ending 'East of Suez': The British Decision to Withdraw from Malaysia and Singapore
  14. ^ Shohei Sato Britain's decision to withdraw from the Persian Gulf 1964-68
  15. ^ Withdrawal from Empire: Britain's Decolonization of Egypt, Aden, and Kenya in the Mid-Twentieth Century - A Monograph by Maj Brian S. Olson, U.S. Army
  16. ^ The Five Power Defence Arrangements: The Quiet Achiever by Carlyle A. Thayer
  17. ^ "The New East of Suez Question: Damage Limitation after Failure Over Syria". Royal United Services Institute. 19 September 2013. Archived from the original on 2 July 2015. Retrieved 1 July 2015.
  18. ^ Gardner, Frank 'East of Suez': Are UK forces returning? BBC News 29 April 2013
  19. ^ "A Return to East of Suez? UK Military Deployment to the Gulf". Royal United Services Institute. April 2013. Retrieved 1 July 2015.
  20. ^ Waterman, Shaun British forces to return to Persian Gulf to fill void from U.S. exit The Washington Times, 29 April 2013
  21. ^ "The New East of Suez Question: Damage Limitation after Failure Over Syria". Royal United Services Institute. 19 September 2013. Archived from the original on 2 July 2015. Retrieved 1 July 2015.
  22. ^ "East of Suez, West from Helmand: British Expeditionary Force and the next SDSR" (PDF). Oxford Research Group. December 2014. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2 July 2015. Retrieved 22 May 2015.
  23. ^ "UK-Bahrain sign landmark defence agreement". Foreign & Commonwealth Office. 5 December 2014. Retrieved 6 December 2014.
  24. ^ "UK to establish £15m permanent Mid East military base". BBC. 6 December 2014. Retrieved 6 December 2014.
  25. ^ "PM pledges £178 billion investment in defence kit". Ministry of Defence. 23 November 2015. p. 49. Retrieved 23 November 2015.
  26. ^ "Britain considers stronger military co-operation with Gulf". Financial Times. 8 November 2015. Retrieved 23 November 2015.
  27. ^ "Defence Secretary strengthens ties between UK and Oman". GOV.UK. 28 August 2017. Retrieved 18 September 2020.
  28. ^ "UK and Oman sign historic Joint Defence Agreement". GOV.UK. 21 February 2019. Retrieved 18 September 2020.
  29. ^ "Union Jack still flies at Britain's last military outpost in Asia | ThingsAsian".
  30. ^ "UK help and services in Singapore - GOV.UK". Archived from the original on September 14, 2012.

Further reading

  • Darby, Phillip. "Beyond East of Suez." International Affairs 46.4 (1970): 655-669. online, covers Conservative Party response
  • Darby, Phillip. British Defence Policy East of Suez, 1947-1968 (Oxford UP, 1973)
  • Dockrill, Saki. Britain’s Retreat from East of Suez: The Choice between Europe and the World? (Springer, 2002).
  • Hanning, Hugh. "Britain East of Suez-Facts and Figures." International Affairs 42.2 (1966): 253-260. online
  • Howard, Michael. "Britain's Strategic Problem East of Suez." International Affairs 42.2 (1966): 179-183. online
  • McCourt, David M. "What was Britain's 'East of Suez role'? Reassessing the withdrawal, 1964–1968." Diplomacy & Statecraft 20.3 (2009): 453-472.
  • Parr, Helen. "Britain, America, East of Suez and the EEC: finding a role in British foreign policy, 1964–67." Contemporary British History 20.3 (2006): 403-421.
  • Pickering, Jeffrey. Britain's withdrawal from East of Suez (Springer, 1998).
  • Sanders, David, and David Houghton. Losing an empire, finding a role: British foreign policy since 1945 (2nd ed. 2017) pp 118–31.
  • Vaez-Zadeh, Hessameddin, and Reza Javadi, "Reassessing Britain’s Withdrawal from the Persian Gulf in 1971 and its Military Return in 2014." World Sociopolitical Studies 3.1 (2019): 1-44 Online.

External links