Middle East wars and the British Arab vote

Middle East wars and the British Arab vote
Military interventions in the Middle East have defined much of the UK's foreign policy for the past 15 years. What is their legacy among British Arab voters?
6 min read
29 April, 2015
Millions marched in London against the Iraq war, but does that matter now? [Getty]
Sabah al-Mukhatar is a British citizen who migrated 38 years ago from his homeland in Iraq to climb the ranks of his profession in the UK.

"The images I have of British soldiers in Basra kicking men in the balls who were spread eagled on the floor is unforgettable, that can't disappear," reflected Mukhatar, now the president of the Association of Arab Lawyers in the UK.

The fallout from recent British military interventions across the Middle East and North Africa still resonates strongly with Mukhatar, along with much of the British Arab community, but as the elections for a new government loom, will this legacy play a prominent role in their voting decisions?

Both main parties, Labour and Conservative, have been at the helm of government when major foreign interventions were waged over the past 15 years.

Former Labour leader Tony Blair promised, during the bloody aftermath of the 2003 Iraq invasion, "it is in a sense absolutely our responsibility to make sure we stay with [the Iraqi people] whilst it is their wish".

Fast forward to 2013, and the incumbent prime minister and leader of the Conservative party, David Cameron, assured the Libyan people that "we will stand with you every step of the way", having lent the UK's military muscle to the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi.

Plans gone awry

Whatever support there was within British-Arab communities for the interventions as a "necessary evil" to unseat deeply entrenched dictators quickly started to erode as violence, corruption and sectarianism flooded in to fill the void.
     There is a lot of talk about democracy but I've lost faith in their commitement to these ideas.
- Dr Shatha Besarani

"The aftermath to the interventions has been a complete disaster. Nothing has been done properly; politics, economy, fundamentalism... All of the failures are down to bad planning and greed," said Dr Shatha Besarani, a British-Iraqi public health doctor in London who opposed the Iraq war from day one.

The day before speaking to al-Araby al-Jadeed, Dr Besarani had been engaged in a number of social media discussions after a bombing in the Mansour region of Baghdad claimed the lives of at least seven children.

A recurring sentiment among the comments from Iraqis both in the UK and Iraq was blame against the West.

"All the death and blood is so much to bear, people are just trying to understand who is behind it," she said.

Dr Besarani is no stranger to the brutality and oppression of the dictatorship that ravaged Iraq for decades. When she was 15, her family were forced to flee - after her mother, a history lecturer at the University of Baghdad, found herself on Saddam Hussein's hit list.

With the US and UK-led occupation spawning a new era of oppression and extortion that has since transmogrified into the savagery and extremism engulfing swathes of the country, she laments that the situation is worse than it has ever been.

Yet, despite the anger and disillusionment felt, neither Dr Besarani nor Sabah al-Mukhatar believe the legacy of UK foreign policy in the region will play a major role in their voting intentions - or those of most other British Arabs.

"When you look at the coming election this aspect is less pronounced; domestic issues are more important such as tax, health care, education," said Mukhatar.

The passage of time has assuaged some of the grievances, but what is more is that all of the main parties carry their own baggage of supporting foreign interventions. The issue is viewed less through the lens of party politics but rather the wider establishment - including those forces, perceived or real, that wield influence beyond the confines of parliament.

"Sometimes you are left feeling there are stronger powers than the politicians with lots of major vested interests, such as big business or foreign allegiances," said Dr Besarani.

"There is lots of talk about democracy, but I've lost faith in their commitment to these ideas. Even here in the UK the democracy is thin."

Much of a muchness

The UK government enjoyed considerably different circumstances to the Iraq invasion when it threw its weight in 2011 behind the military campaign to ostensibly realise "an immediate ceasefire in Libya, including an end to the current attacks against civilians".

A civil war was already unfolding in the country, there was greater legitimacy given by Security Council resolution 1973 and a wider coalition of countries were involved in the intervention.

Among the large sections of the British Libyan population who supported the nascent uprising and wanted the UK government to help ensure Gaddafi's overthrow was Ibrahim Rfidah.

     People don't really see how there could be a difference on stances on the Middle East.
- Ibrahim Rfidah

Born and bred in the UK, but with family roots in Tripoli and Misrata, Rfidah has maintained strong links with Libya and has frequently visited.

The 26-year-old bank worker maintains his support for the uprising and the necessity of the intervention, but concedes he may have been naive in underestimating the level of support for Gaddafi, or the complexity of what would unravel with the dictator's demise.

But neither foreign policy nor the legacy of intervention will play a significant role in which way he votes.

"There has been a change in moods," he said. "Around ten years ago, people would have really cared who was in government on the basis of their position and influence in the region - but now people don't really see how there could be any significant difference in stances on the Middle East."

The only major party that had previously struck a significantly different tone on foreign policy was the Liberal Democrats, which voted against the 2003 Iraq war.

However, during its period as a junior partner in a coalition government for the past five years this distinctive voice has been tempered.

"A lot of Arabs voted for the Liberal Democrats because of their ethical foreign policy stances, such as on Palestine, anti-interventionism and equality," said Mukhatar the lawyer. "Once in power, it all went down the drain. I don't know any Arabs here now who are going to vote for them."

An array of smaller parties may end up wielding influence if no party wins an outright majority - and they do offer genuinely different policies on everything from foreign intervention, arms sales and Palestine. But none have a proven track record in power and they are unlikely to garner significant votes from British Arabs.

The impressions of Britain's historic involvement in the Middle East and North Africa still strike a strong chord with many Arabs who have laid down roots in the UK - but, come voting day, this is unlikely to be a deciding factor, they say.

Much more prosaic considerations such as the quality of the school at the end of the road or the chances of being able to afford a home are likely to determine in which box the tick falls.