CMEC Exclusive: RUSI's Michael Stephens on the opportunities and challenges for the new UK government in the Middle East
Analysis 19 Jun 2017

CMEC Exclusive: RUSI's Michael Stephens on the opportunities and challenges for the new UK government in the Middle East

Michael Stephens

As the dust settles after a dramatic election, causing yet more upheaval in British domestic politics, the new government will need to begin turning its eye toward the world. Under the banner of Global Britain, the UK has set out its post-Brexit goal to become a nation active across the globe, seeking new opportunities and partnerships while mitigating the risks caused by the decision to leave the European Union.

Whether the UK successfully navigates this period of change is a matter to be determined in due course. But in the meantime there will need to be an acceptance that as the UK plots a new course in its relationship with Europe other areas of foreign policy will be relegated for the time being. This is especially the case with regard to the Middle East, where Britain’s historical desire to involve itself in state building, promotion of democratic values, and good governance will undoubtedly be put on the back burner.

A second strand guiding Britain’s Middle East policy will be a close adherence toward United States regional policy on major regional security issues.  The simple goal will be to exert a quiet, yet determined, influence behind the scenes, cajoling and persuading the US to adhere to the JCPOA with Iran, maintain a strong but balanced relationship with the Gulf states, and to be mindful of staying the course in the counter-Daesh campaign, acknowledging that the hard work of political reconciliation across Syria and Iraq is yet to come. The Trump administration still appears to be on a steep learning curve when it comes to policy. It is critically important that the British voice be heard in Washington, and the hope is that British influence can smooth off some of the rougher edges of the current US administration’s approach to the Middle East.

Under the new government we should expect to see a quiet retreat to a more humble regional policy. A policy in which goals of stability and regional security as well as the promotion of liberal values are downgraded in favour of a narrower focus on counter terrorism and a mercantile approach to inter-state relations. Given that the Middle East has seen a slide toward greater authoritarianism since the outbreak of the Arab Spring, this may well suit regional strongmen, particularly in Turkey, Egypt and the Gulf. The result is likely to be an enhanced cross cutting set of relationships in the region, in which British policy moves closer to a “friends to all” approach; blending  mercantilism with traditional policy, where the UK retains its historical military commitments to the Gulf States, and keeps a keen eyed focus on the proliferation of terrorist groups and non-state actors that have spread across the region.

The current crisis in the Gulf between Qatar and its neighbours may give UK policy makers reason to rethink, however. Despite numerous claims by Gulf commentators that all is well in the GCC, nothing could be further from the truth. There is likely to be significant damage to the GCC, both politically and economically, as a result of the break in relations with Qatar. London’s close relationship to all six Gulf countries behoves a degree of silence and quiet reassurance to all parties. The UK’s historical preference for bilateralism over engagement at the multilateral level of the GCC places the UK in good stead to ride out the storm. However, given the severity of the split this current policy of neutrality is undoubtedly under strain.

UK policy has long set out the need to engage the Gulf states as proactive partners in the region, the aim being to support their role as regional security guarantors in the immediate vicinity of the Gulf, and to further deepen their relationships with the UK. However,the need to work with a united Gulf is central if this strategy is to work. A lot of work in the coming months (if not years) will be required to create a more unified GCC, and heal the fractures that have opened amongst its members. Quite apart from the obvious economic problems a sustained break causes, this also has important ramifications for UK strategy vis-à-vis Iran and the wider region, particularly in Syria, Lebanon and Yemen. These are all theatres in which the Gulf States are in direct or proxy confrontation with Iranian interests, leading to power vacuums and the proliferation of armed non-state actors across weakened and failing states. A swift and positive resolution to the Gulf crisis is therefore crucial before it ripples across the region.

Last but not least, the UK must begin to formulate a concrete policy with regard to Turkey. Having narrowly won a referendum granting him executive powers, and with it the possibility of remaining in power until the 2030s, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan will be the focal point of British engagement. However, the President faces an uphill battle on a number of fronts. The deeply worrying turn of events that have taken place since the failed military coup of July 2016 have led to thousands of arrests on spurious charges, as well as crackdowns on journalists and academics. This has invited fierce criticism, particularly from European states. In addition, Turkey is in the midst of a fierce three way conflict between the government, the Islamic State, and the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). Although security has improved, Turkey has suffered grievously from multiple terrorist atrocities and it will take some time to recover from a period of sustained insecurity.

Having remained more or less silent during the referendum, the UK is in a good position to assist Turkey in getting back to its feet, offering an enhanced trading relationship, and working to heighten security cooperation, while quietly encouraging reform. The Prime Minister has also led from the front in warming relations, visiting Ankara in January in the early stages of her Premiership. However, strengthened relations with Turkey will not come cost-free, and should Mr Erdogan continue to crack down on opposition parties the UK would be placed in a very difficult moral position by its new partner in Ankara.

This clash of national interest (particularly security and economic interests) against norms and values will define Britain’s Middle East policy in the coming years. It is not a new challenge by any means, but the UK would do well to plot a course over the coming years and stick to it. A key component of British policy in the region has been the promotion of British values and good governance particularly with close historical partners. That these will find less voice will be uncomfortable for many, but with the UK’s resources largely focused on other issues closer to home it may be an inevitable, if saddening, compromise that must be made.