Britain and the Middle East Post Brexit

The young Fabians hosted an event in November to discuss Britain's relationship with the Middle East. the International Network Secretary, Nathaneal Amos Sansam, writes up the event below.  

The key speaker was Chris Doyle, how is the Director of the Centre for Arab and British Understanding, which lobbies and engages with MP’s and diplomats of policy issues, and advocated for greater human rights and freedom in the region.

Chris Started by making the contention that there has never been a cohesive British foreign policy on the Middle East, and so far as it did exist it was made up of a series of overlapping interests, as well as many individual agreements and collaborations on civil and governmental level. He also added that it was often easier for him to explain Middle Eastern politics to the British than the other way around. Many diplomats and officials from the region are incredulous at the situation Britain is in over Brexit.

He added that post-war British foreign policy in the region has largely been defined by Britain’s relationship with both the United States and the European Union. That is still the case now, and all suggestions from the current government are that this will likely still be the case after we leave the EU as well.

Chris said that when he started as Director of CAABU in 2002, following MENA issues was often a week by week ordeal. Now though it often felt like a 24 hour a day task, which is often as dizzying as it is exhausting. Just ten years ago, you could have some sense of certainty what the policy of what a state like Saudi Arabia was going to be. That certainty is no longer there and policies and actions are far more fluid then they once were.

On what British policy should be going forwards, Chris argued that the United Kingdom, as one of the main penholders at the United Nations Security Council, have not done much with that power to help the situation in the region. He said that Britain currently was “not even at the races” when it came to dealing directly with the current diplomatic issues in the region, and that ideally Britain should be using its network of diplomats in the region to foster a peaceful solution to the various conflicts such as that in Yemen.

While he was sceptical of the process he Brexit process will deliver in terms of Britain’s foreign policy, Chris said that it might offer the UK an opportunity to recast itself as a neutral, humanitarian-focused nation in the mould of Scandinavia. However this seemed doubtful in the short to medium term.


Finally on Labour and its foreign policy positions, he said that many hadn’t really considered the scale of the change in policy a potential Corbyn government under a Foreign Secretary Emily Thornberry would be from all recent governments. In the Middle East this would mean a far more distant relationship with Saudi Arabia and in all likelihood the state of Israel (as well as British recognition of a Palestinian state).

He said that Emily Thornberry clearly comes from a different political tradition to Jeremy on foreign policy, and this has led to a certain level of compromise on policy issues such as Syria and Israel/Palestine. However Saudi Arabia is an issue where there is something of a consensus in opposition, however any unilateral action on arms trading would almost certainly come with an economic hit to the domestic industries it supports, and there is also a risk of retaliation against other forms of economic collaboration such as services. Many of the other Gulf States tend to follow Saudi Arabia’s lead, and there is a prominent British economic interest in places like Dubai and Abu Dabi.

Chris also stressed that a Corbyn government would also mean a completely different political, diplomatic and security relationship with the United States, something which by itself has the potential to be as big a shift in British foreign policy as Brexit.


When we took questions from the audience, a number of them were about Saudi Arabia and in particular the situation with the murdered journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Chris said that the UK/Saudi relationship on the diplomatic, economic and security level has been a pivotal one for many decades, and the UK doesn’t really have a Plan B to compensate for that relationship. One might suggest Iran is another potential ally in this regard, but that brings up the same questions of ethics and human rights, plus it would likely be frowned upon by Washington D.C. given the current hostilities. He said that one of the key reasons for this story getting the coverage it was the fact that this was that Khashoggi was an established journalist with lots of networks, meaning that many western publications such as the NYT felt more driven to uncover the truth of his murder.

On where this leaves the Saudi leadership, Chris said that the once fated Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman is a far less cautious leader and actor in world affairs than those who have preceded him, something which is illustrated by the ramping up of the conflict in Yemen in recent years. He said that in light of the recent scandal, it is hard to see how Bin Salman’s‘2030’ reforms, aimed at diversifying the Saudi economy will be enacted.


On a question about the situation in Syria and why there had been so little coverage in western media compared to just two years ago. Chris said that the UK effectively vacated the scene two years ago along with the rest of the west. There are now three key ‘guarantor nations’ in line with the Asana talks: Turkey, Iran, and Russia. As the situation stands, what remains of the rebel and Kurdish fighters in northern Syria are engaged in a fragile ceasefire with the forces of Bashir Assad’s regime, but the interests of the three nations are to consolidate the situation as it stands.

On western media, Chris noted that recently France and Germany had been involved in talks with these nations regarding a reconstruction effort in the country, which led to some coverage in western media. However they like the rest of the west are not interested in engaging in the a reconstruction effort unless there is some sort of political reform, which is not forth coming from the Syrian government and is not currently in the interest of any of the guarantor nations, many of whom are looking to secure prime strategic real-estate in the war-torn country in exchange for their ongoing patronage.

Chris finished by saying that there was now a risk of a regional situation almost akin to Europe in 1914, where you have a massive build-up of arms and of armies all in close proximity to each other. One nation which as


A question came from the floor asking about the Middle East and attitudes to climate change. Chris said that historically it was not a debate that had much support in the region given the large political and economic interest in the Oil and Gas industry, and was largely swept aside by the reality of geopolitics. However this is now slowly changing as various gulf countries now look to diversify their economies, with increased investment in solar power in particular.


On a question from the floor about the situation in Yemen and British arms sales to Saudi Arabia, Chris said that the British government could target and suspend private arms sales far more quickly than contracted ones. He added that they needed to be a much greater emphasis on reversing the ‘war economies’ that have developed around these major flashpoints in the region, as it helps removes the many disincentives for peace in the region.


On a question about the US pulling out of the Iran Nuclear Deal, Chris said that while there were large parts of the 2015 agreement that were not perfect, it was by far preferable to the course of action that the Trump Administration is now pursuing. The United States is now going back to a position that suggests you can use sanctions to bring about change within Iran, but history has shown that this does not work, and suggestions of any direct action are highly unlikely any time soon.

In terms of the British, EU and Russian efforts to keep the deal going, they are unlikely to be successful, as companies are unlikely to want to risk being frozen out of the US market, and any guarantees to insure that they won’t lose out are unlikely to come to anything.


On a question about Israel’s relations with the Gulf States, Chris said that on the perceived threat of Iran and Hezbollah in Syria both sides have a common cause and interest in curbing their influence as much as possible. This relationship is not direct or formal, and is unlikely to lead to embassies. Also the move by the United States to move its embassy to Jerusalem incensed opinion in the Gulf, and has made the heads of many nations wary of engaging with Israel directly.

On the Palestine issue, Chris said that there is unlikely to be any movement under the Trump Administration to any sort of peace plan as there is so little incentive for either side to go along with it. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is in his 80’s and wants to hold onto his legacy and so is likely to attack any proposals by the United States. The US defunding on the refugee agency UNWRA has also meant that Gulf States have agreed to make up the shortfall this year, it remains to be seen though if this service which has been used by Palestinians for decades can endure.

Nathaneal Amos-Sansam is the Secretary of the International Network, and led the event. Follow him on Twitter at @NathanealSansam

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