The phrase East of Suez is used in British military and political discussions in reference to imperial interests beyond the European theatre, and east of Suez Canal—most notably its military base in Singapore—and may or may not include the Middle East.
Origin of the phrase
- 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;
Backdrop and current status
The opening of 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. 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”. The canal and the imperial outposts east of the canal were of genuine strategic value to the British Empire 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, British Malaya, Hong Kong, North Borneo, Sarawak) and Australia.
The fall of Singapore to the Japanese on 15 February 1942 crippled the empire as it lost a strategic imperial outpost and laid the seeds of the collapse of British imperial power, post World War II. 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. The Suez Crisis—a diplomatic and military confrontation in November 1956, caused by the nationalization of 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. In January 1968, a few weeks after the devaluation of the pound, Prime Minister Harold Wilson and his Defence Secretary, Denis Healey, announced that British troops would be withdrawn in 1971 from major military bases in South East Asia, "east of Aden", primarily in Malaysia and Singapore as well as Aden and Maldives (both of which are sited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. Prior to the 1997 handover of Hong Kong to China, Britain based several units in Hong Kong.
In April 2013 the British think tank 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 British Royal Air Force, as well as the continuing build of British troops in the Gulf states as Britain begins to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan. Furthermore, the report went to explain that as Britain begins to relocate its troops from Germany by 2020, the British base in the UAE could become their permanent home. 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 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 Gulf will become our main military effort.". Overall this would signal a reversal of Britain's East of Suez withdrawal.
Currently, Britain maintains the School of Jungle Warfare 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. There is also a small British military presence remaining on Diego Garcia in the British Indian Ocean Territory, as well as a refuelling station (manned by Royal Navy personnel) in the former HMNB Singapore in Singapore.
- 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)
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- Gardner, Frank 'East of Suez': Are UK forces returning? BBC News 29 April 2013
- Waterman, Shaun British forces to return to Persian Gulf to fill void from U.S. exit The Washington Times, 29 April 2013
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