Britain and the Gulf: elections won't change a thing

Britain and the Gulf: elections won't change a thing
Comment: The UK general election on May 7 is unlikely to alter the course of British policy in the Gulf, says Simon Mabon.
3 min read
01 May, 2015
British PM David Cameron welcomes the King of Bahrain in London 2012 [Getty]

Foreign policy has been notably absent from the debate leading up to next week's general election in Britain. Aside from recent discussions surrounding the tragedy in the Mediterranean, following intervention in Libya, very little attention has been paid to foreign affairs.

Even debates about Libya focused more on the absence of post intervention planning than the principle of intervention itself. Of course, this is nothing new. In 2005, as British troops fought in Iraq in the midst of the most controversial war in recent history, only the Liberal Democrats and rebel Labour and Conservative voices were critical of the Blair government's foreign policy.

The political programmes of the main parties fail to engage with questions about foreign policy until the latter pages of each manifesto.

The phrase "foreign direct investment" appears much earlier than foreign policy in both the main parties' manifestos, reflecting the more immediate concern with economic issues than other international issues. But this also demonstrates the similarities between the major parties in their approaches to foreign policy. 

Britain's policy towards the Middle East – and in the Gulf in particular – will not shift dramatically after the election, even if Ed Miliband, the leader of the opposition Labour party, becomes Prime Minister.

The influence of Whitehall and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office on foreign policy making has grown in the post-Blair years and as such, a change in political leadership will not affect the trajectory of British foreign policy in the region. 

However, while there are few differences in foreign policy trajectories, the differences in governance strategies are much more visible.

In particular, the focus upon trade and "soft power" strategies employed by the Conservatives since 2010 are more prominent than under the Brown-led Labour government.

Bahrain is a case in point. According to British Ambassador, Iain Lindsay, is the fastest growing export market in the Gulf region, and as such is an example of the success of this policy.  

ighlighting the lack of space within foreign policy debates is the notion that the Gulf is an integral part of British security calculations. In the aftermath of the withdrawal from Afghanistan, Bahrain is playing an increasingly important role in strategic calculations. 

In December last year the government announced that a permanent British base would be established in Bahrain for the first time since Harold Wilson's withdrawal of British forces from 'East of Aden' in 1968. The new base was to be a "gift" from the Al Khalifa regime, ostensibly rewarding Britain for its loyalty during the Arab Uprisings. A British naval base in the archipelago serves not only British interests in the Middle East, but also around the Horn of Africa where British ships help to combat piracy.

One occasion in which foreign policy in the Gulf was discussed was during the so-called "Opponents' Debate," where Natalie Bennett, leader of the Green Party, suggested that her party's diplomatic efforts would include putting an end to arms sales to authoritarian leaders and named the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Bennett's party is unlikely to gain any real influence in parliament, but the issue of arms deals with wealthy Gulf states is increasingly controversial.

During his term as Prime Minister, David Cameron faced a great deal of criticism for selling arms to Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. While these states are allies of Britain, they are regularly criticized for their human rights records. The naval base in Bahrain is under investigation on the grounds that the Ministry of Defence had not followed the Overseas Security and Justice Assistance guidelines set out in 2011, which called for a consideration of human rights implications in all agreements with overseas allies.

Perhaps this is reflective of a more normative turn in foreign policy - one that could well be enforced should an 'anti-Tory' alliance emerge. Ultimately though, British foreign policy towards the Gulf will continue along a similar path regardless of who wins the election on May 7th.