It is now more than 40 years since Denis Healey, the Labour defence secretary at the time, ordered the withdrawal of British forces located east of the Suez Canal in a futile attempt to balance the government’s books.
If few could dispute the economic imperative that necessitated a dramatic reduction in Britain’s global presence, the decision came as a particularly cruel blow to the Gulf Arabs, most of whom cherished their long-standing ties with Britain which, in many cases, dated back to the early 19th century.
With London no longer able to protect them, the Americans quickly filled the void, and the arrival of the US 5th Fleet – which today has more warships than the entire Royal Navy – to take over the Bahrain naval base vacated by British forces in 1971 aptly symbolised our humiliating retreat from empire. Until recently, the Pax Americana has admirably served the Gulf region’s interests, whether protecting it from the threat posed by the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein or the more sinister designs of the ayatollahs menacing the Arab regimes from the opposite shores of the Gulf.
But, thanks to the Obama administration’s woeful disregard for the concerns of its erstwhile allies, the entire future of the Western alliance’s relationship with the Gulf region is now under threat.
Looking back, the rot set in nearly three years ago, when President Barack Obama unwisely backed the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak, the ruler of Egypt, despite the fact that Mr Mubarak had been a staunch Western ally for more than three decades. If Mr Obama could blithely turn his back on a trusted ally such as the Egyptian president, then what guarantees did other pro-Western Arab regimes have that Washington would stand by them in their hour of need?
More recently, last month’s interim agreement between the US and Tehran in Geneva over Iran’s controversial nuclear programme has exacerbated tensions further. The result is that many leading Arab states, such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia, are now seriously considering whether they should ditch their long-standing ties to Washington, and look elsewhere for more reliable allies, an opportunity Russia’s Vladimir Putin is only too eager to exploit.
This deepening sense of betrayal by the Obama administration was very much in evidence at last weekend’s annual Manama Dialogue regional conference in Bahrain, which is organised by the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies. Despite attempts by Chuck Hagel, the US defence secretary, and William Hague to reassure the Gulf states that the West still had their interests at heart, a succession of leading Arab politicians questioned whether they could any longer trust the Americans to support their cause.
This was particularly true of the Bahraini royal family, which, having provided the US Navy with a vital operating base for more than four decades, now finds itself under almost daily assault from Iranian-backed agitators who take their orders from the very same ayatollahs Washington is negotiating with on the nuclear issue.
As Sheikh Khalid bin Hamad al-Khalifa, Bahrain’s foreign minister, explained to me: “You do not need to reassure us; you need to listen to us, because we know Iran well.”
Clearly, Bahrain would welcome any deal that prevents its intimidating neighbour from acquiring an atom bomb. But it has other concerns, too, such as ending Iran’s open support for the terrorist groups that are trying to destabilise the kingdom, as well as many other Arab states, including Saudi Arabia.
Indeed, the Saudis were even more forthright, with Nizar Madani, Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister, stating bluntly: “Gulf countries should no longer depend on others to ensure their safety.” There was little doubt who he meant by “others”.
The alarming breakdown in trust between Washington and Arab leaders has certainly not escaped Moscow’s attention, with Russia intensifying its efforts to move into countries that for decades have been stalwart American allies. Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the Saudis’ formidable intelligence chief, has recently made several visits to Moscow, and last week held talks with Mr Putin on resolving the Syrian crisis and the Iranian issue. Last month, meanwhile, Russia sent a high-level delegation to Cairo, where the recently installed military authorities are in no mood to take any more lectures from Mr Obama on how to run their country.
Russia still has much ground to make up if it is seriously to challenge decades of Western hegemony in the region, but the prospect of Mr Putin increasing his control over Europe’s primary source of energy supplies is not a thought that inspires confidence.
Mr Hague, for one, is certainly aware of the pitfalls of this dangerous tilt towards Russia, and spoke eloquently in Bahrain about his determination to deepen Britain’s ties with the Gulf on the basis of “mutual understanding”. Apart from the prospect of negotiating a £20 billion arms deal, plans to revive Britain’s military presence east of Suez, which are currently being given serious consideration by Downing Street, would be a welcome demonstration that Britain, at least, cherishes its historic ties to the Gulf.
Certainly, if the Obama administration is not up to the job of looking after its friends, then Britain should do the job for it.
Con Coughlin is an expert on international terrorism and the Middle East.