BEIRUT: Current negotiations around Britain’s exit from the European Union are unlikely to affect the country’s commitment to Lebanon, U.K. Ambassador to Lebanon Hugo Shorter said from the deck of the Royal Navy flagship that docked in Beirut over the weekend. “We’re still full members of the EU, so it’s some time off before a change in our engagement with EU projects here, but the fact is that the vast majority of what we do in Lebanon is bilateral, direct between the U.K. and Lebanon, not through the EU,” Shorter told The Daily Star in the shadow of a Merlin Mk3 helicopter aboard the deck of the HMS Ocean Saturday.
He explained that the U.K.’s involvement in Lebanon would likely be unaffected by the June 2016 referendum on EU membership.
“All of that will continue as before and actually I think that the visit of the ship shows how much we will remain engaged in the region.”
The U.K. warship stopped over in Lebanon as part of a demonstration of the country’s deep economic, diplomatic and security ties to the country, the ambassador said, as it returned from Combined Task Force 50 exercise Unified Trident in the Arabian Gulf that ended on Feb. 2. The ship left Beirut Sunday.
HMS Ocean arrives in Beirut
At 21,000 tons and 203 meters in length, the Royal Navy’s largest ship dominated Beirut port as it prepared for a reception event to host leading Lebanese and British officials Saturday evening. The helicopter carrier is an amphibious assault ship able to hold and launch a range of state-of-the-art rotary wing aircraft and unmanned aerial vehicles as well as hundreds of personnel at a time, while transporting them 13,000 kilometers around the globe without resupplying. The carrier has been in service for 19 years and is currently the flagship of the British Navy. The deployment was part of a multinational task force to “maintain the free flow of trade, freedom of navigation for shipping and regional security in the Middle East,” a statement from U.K. Embassy in Lebanon reported.
“It carries to Beirut a message of the U.K.’s commitment to Lebanon. We have a long-standing relationship but also have a long-standing partnership with the key institutions in Lebanon responsible for security and defense,” Shorter told media from the windswept flight deck of the British warship during its Beirut stopover. “We have been working with the armed forces in Lebanon … to help [them] secure the border with regiments and towers and addition capabilities.”
The ambassador also pointed to the work the embassy has done with the Internal Security Forces for the past eight years, and during the evening reception aboard the ship he announced “the delivery of further equipment worth $65,000 for Lebanese Rangers … to help build their ‘off-road’ and ‘all-weather’ capabilities,” the embassy statement said. Prior to the announcement, the ambassador told reporters that the donation would give Lebanese Army Rangers the “capability [to operate] right across the whole Lebanese territory.
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“In recent months we [the U.K. government] committed to continuing training with the Army until 2019, with a target of over 11,000 soldiers trained,” Shorter said.
However, Shorter stressed the U.K.’s commitment goes beyond security and defense, explaining that “our relationship with Lebanon is much more than the defense sphere … it is jobs through the U.K.-Lebanon Tech Hub, it is education, working very closely with the Ministry of Education, it is jobs, working with the Ministry of Social Affairs and municipalities up and down the country. So that is the meaning of the visit. It is, if you like, a strong symbol of the continued and enduring partnership with the U.K.”
He added that there would be no major new announcements for projects at the evening reception aboard HMS Ocean, which was attended by Defense Minister Yaacoub Sarraf and representatives of President Michel Aoun, Prime Minister Saad Hariri and Speaker Nabih Berri. He explained that “[the visit] was really about bringing all those [existing projects] together with a message of partnership with Lebanon.”
The Lebanese Army also reported that HMS Ocean’s commanding officer Capt. Pedre, Shorter and the British Embassy’s Defense Attache Chris Gunning met Lebanese Army head Gen. Jean Kahwagi and Sarraf at the ministry in Yarze Saturday afternoon. Discussions “touched on ways to strengthen the [Lebanese] Navy capabilities and tasks to control Lebanese territorial waters,” a statement from the Army reported. HMS Ocean’s Rear Adm. Burton also met with Lebanese Navy commander Adm. Majed Alwan for discussions.
One aspect of the multinational deployments is the sharing of knowledge and joint training. During Saturday’s tour of the British flagship, standing in the ship’s compact clinic, a medical officer explained that an example of this collaboration included a recent instance where a U.S. Navy surgical team had embarked on HMS Ocean to demonstrate the ability of non-British doctors to treat patients aboard Royal Navy ships. She said the exercise had been very successful and proved that such undertakings were viable for future operations.
Decommissioning of British flagship
Having entered service in 1998, the HMS Ocean is slated for sale next year, a fact that has made waves in the U.K. press given the relatively young age of the ship, its unique role as a helicopter carrier and a the 65 million-pound ($79.9 million) refurbishment started in 2012.
There have been calls from Former First Sea Lord Adm. Lord West, to extend the operation of the ship at least until two new aircraft carriers come into service. The 3.1 billion-pound HMS Queen Elizabeth, which will supersede the HMS Ocean as the largest ship in the Royal Navy with a displacement of roughly three times the size, is expected to enter service later this year, followed in 2020 by the HMS Prince of Wales.
Regarding the ship’s retirement from service, Cmdr. Jude Terry OBE, head of logistics aboard the HMS Ocean, told The Daily Star that “the plan is very much to decommission her on March 31 next year.” However, she said operationally it would be possible to extend the life of the British flagship. “It would need some work, but operationally it could continue beyond that point. It does offer a unique platform for [British Navy] operations, however, we have sold ships that were much younger.”
While the U.K. Ambassador declined to comment on local political issues, he did address upcoming elections expected in May this year. “We hope the parliamentary elections will take place in a timely way. I can’t predict what the sovereign decision made by Lebanon will be but … I think everyone agrees they need to happen again soon.”