Neither consistent nor ethical: Britain's Middle East policy

Neither consistent nor ethical: Britain's Middle East policy
Comment: Brexit will drive British foreign policy after the election. For the Middle East this means privileging security and trade to the detriment of human rights, writes Chris Doyle.
6 min read
06 Jun, 2017
Britain's annual trade with the GCC states alone is worth a hefty $37.22bn [Anadolu]

One question that is unlikely to be answered by Britain's latest general election on 8 June, is what is Britain's Middle East policy? 

More than at any time since the Arab Spring kicked off in 2010, this question has no clear answer at all. No major political party has even attempted to outline such a policy, and considering the scale and challenge of negotiating an exit from the EU, it is unlikely to be a policy priority.

But Britain's links and interests in the Middle East remain deep and important. Its annual trade with the GCC states alone is worth a hefty $37.22bn. British armed forces are involved in both Syria and Iraq as part of the coalition against IS.

Britain remains a major aid donor to victims of the Syrian crisis, among others. It is the largest foreign direct investor into the Arab world's most populous state, Egypt. So Britain is not about to abandon the region, by any stretch.

Yet the region's inhabitants must look at Britain quizzically.

Prior to the Arab Spring, British leaders had been tongue-tied when it came to democracy in the Middle East. Then in 2011, then Prime Minister David Cameron went to Egypt after the resignation of Hosni Mubarak. My first reaction was of joyous welcome. His Foreign Secretary William Hague had just been to Tunisia. Britain was out in the lead of supporting democracy and change in the region. The prime minister was meeting young people in Tahrir Square, as Hague had met impressive young Tunisians in Tunis. Was this the start of a new fresh approach, so sorely needed?

Minutes later, we discovered that in fact, Cameron was accompanied by eight representatives of arms firms en route to the Gulf. Warm words on supporting democracy were soon forgotten. The British government announced an Arab Partnership Initiative, with initial funding of £5 million, less than city banker's annual bonus. It was clear that support for democracy was cigarette paper thin.

It was clear that support for democracy was cigarette paper thin

Incoherence in British policy is hardly new or unique among states. The UK sold arms to Saddam's Iraq, it sanctioned Iraq, it bombed and occupied it. The UK sanctioned Libya, then armed Gaddafi, and then invaded, and its condemnation of the use of chemical weapons has been inconsistent.

Britain still has its imperial style delusion, pushing regime change, deciding who is legitimate and who is not. Why should London, Paris or Washington determine who should be the sole legitimate representatives of the Syrian or Libyan peoples? Surely the choice is theirs, not ours. Yet this is what it did 2011 and 2012. As a result, these peoples had no choice in their regime, and little in who the opposition was.

British Middle East policy has never been consistent or even ethical. And that is almost certainly an unrealistic goal, but it should aspire to narrow the gap between perceived interests and its proclaimed values, though it has to be clearer what both are in the first place.

There may not be a coherent strategy but is there even a half-baked strategy? Is there even the scaffolding upon which a strategy can be based? 

There may not be a coherent strategy but is there even a half-baked strategy

Brexit will drive British foreign policy for the next five years at least, and for the Middle East this means a UK focusing on security and trade to the detriment of human rights but also the sort of foreign policy initiatives the regions so desperately requires.

The hasty visit of Theresa May to Washington only days after the inauguration of President Trump also highlights the dependency of Britain on the US, something that Brexit may only exacerbate.

Banking on Trump getting it right in the Middle is a high-risk lottery.

  Read more: May vs Corbyn on Britain's failing counter-terrorism policy

This may be particularly true of Israel-Palestine. Trump's recent visit revealed little, and despite his chatter, no great plan or deal seems to be on the horizon. The Israeli cabinet is full of ministers desperate to wreck chances for peace or a Palestinian state, so a strong European position is vital.
Will Britain join in a concerted effort to save chances for peace and stand up to Israeli settlement expansion, for example? One could never fault the government for the number of times its ministers have said settlements are illegal, but just as every Israeli minister knows, Britain will not do anything about it.

In both Syria and Palestine, the UK has failed to push for solutions that would remove or decrease the vital need for the aid

The UK has committed £2.3bn of humanitarian aid to Syria, and is a major donor to Palestinians. Yet in both cases, it has failed to push for solutions that would remove or decrease the vital need for the aid. And it is lamentable that the UK only agreed to take in 20,000 refugees between 2015-2020. 

On Palestine, UK tax-payers foot the bill for the government's cowardliness, and failure to stand up to illegal Israeli policies - including the bombing and destruction of EU funded projects, the settlement expansion that seems to have no constraints; and the blockade of Gaza that has rendered almost all of its 1.9 million people aid-dependent. 

Remember, it is estimated that for every pound spent on conflict resolution, it saves £4 in aid.

After its failed intervention in Iraq, the public appears opposed to more wars, and our political leaders are bitterly divided on the issue. Since the Iraq invasion of 2003, Britain has a national crisis each time it is faced with this prospect.

Perhaps the most worrying deficiency is one of leadership, at an international and regional level. Who are the great international statesmen in the West or in the Middle East? Who do young Arabs, who make up most of the population, look to for inspiration?

President Obama was blasted for his indecisiveness but he is not alone. George W Bush and Tony Blair were decisive over Iraq and destroyed the country. Only the most dreamy-eyed optimists believe that President Trump has all the answers, not least after a Middle East tour that was short on content, and big on theatrics.

Britain does not look likely to fill this gap, with a prime minister short on experience of the region and an agenda on Brexit that will swamp any government.

Chris Doyle is the director of CAABU (Council for Arab-British Understanding). He is a regular opinion writer and commentator on the Middle East and has organised and accompanied numerous British Parliamentary delegations to the region.

Follow him on Twitter: @Doylech

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.