CMEC hosted a Policy Forum event entitled “Britain and the Middle East after the Arab Spring” on Tuesday 13th March. We were joined by an expert panel consisting of The Rt Hon Alan Duncan MP, Minister of State for International Development, Rory Stewart MP and Dr Eugene Rogan from the University of Oxford.
Each panellist gave wide ranging opening remarks covering many of the issues which have arisen in the Middle East since the fall of Ben Ali in January last year. Alan Duncan focused on the differences between the oil rich states in the GCC and the much less wealthy North African states. He stated that he was optimistic that Libya with its vast oil production capabilities and small population may prove to be a beacon for other states in the region, but urged caution with regards to Egypt where a mixture of poverty and over population may lead to radical politics. He also focused on Yemen, which he had visited earlier in the week in his capacity as DfID Minister, and highlighted the risk of it becoming a failed state like Somalia, and although President Saleh has now departed, the second phase of national dialogue in Yemen is now stagnating, and the role of Saudi Arabia in institution building most be sped up.
Rory Stewart, who had just returned from a Foreign Affairs Select Committee visit to Libya and Egypt, questioned the role and capability of the Foreign Office in coping with the fast moving events in the Middle East. He stated that the understanding of the Arab street within Whitehall had disintegrated over the years and that the UK must re-invest in the FCO and encourage the study of Arabic if it is to ever achieve a pro-active foreign policy in the region. He also called on engagement with democratically elected Islamist groups, and questioned the wisdom of attempting to isolate parties such as Al Nour in Egypt.
Eugene Rogan spoke about three tests which the UK Government should apply towards the new democracies in the Middle East. Firstly, what kind of Governments will these Islamist parties form and whether they were inclusive to other political parties, such as Al Nahda in Tunisia or would they exclude those who ran of different platforms. Secondly, we should look at the nature of constitutions that these countries pursue. Finally he asked how these Islamist parties will react to the next elections in 3-4 years and whether they would accept the peaceful transition of power if they were voted out by the electorate.
A number of Parliamentarians asked questions and made their own contributions following the opening presentations including The Rt Hon Nicholas Soames MP, who praised the efforts of the United States in the region, Nadhim Zahawi MP, who disagreed with Rory Stewart and argued that we must not legitimise radical Islamist groups, and Richard Ottaway MP who stated that he was looking forward to a forthcoming visit of the Freedom and Justice Party later this month.