CMEC Exclusive: RUSI's Michael Stephens on UK-Gulf relations in the Post-Brexit Era
Analysis 5 Dec 2016

CMEC Exclusive: RUSI's Michael Stephens on UK-Gulf relations in the Post-Brexit Era

Michael Stephens

The upcoming GCC summit in the Kingdom of Bahrain will mark an important milestone in UK-Gulf relations. Theresa May will make her first visit to the region as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom at a time in which the UK negotiates a potentially long and turbulent withdrawal from the European Union. Given the amount of political capital that will be expended on the Brexit process in the coming years, it is sensible to be looking for steady partners who are likely to prove dependable in future years, and upon whom the UK can anchor some basic assumptions about its foreign policy. The Gulf States, with their close historic ties, relative stability, and high levels of per capita wealth make good candidates for a first port of call.

 The economic case speaks for itself. At any given time some 250,000 British expatriates are resident in the Gulf Countries, enjoying lifestyles with low taxation and good salaries. UK business won £11.2bn worth of contracts across the Gulf in FY14-15, and given the strong defence and security relationships that exist in the region, large future revenues are expected in the years to come. As the Gulf States move to modernise their economies away from oil and gas driven revenue, the UK is well positioned to offer technical expertise and skills transfer across both the private and public sector.

Much thinking has gone into how this can be achieved, and the Conservative Government under David Cameron moved full steam ahead with a plan to engage the Gulf outside of Britain’s more traditional path of defence and security mega deals. Initially approved by then National Security Adviser Sir Kim Darroch in June 2015, “The Gulf Strategy” was devised as a roadmap for wider economic engagement and promoting the UK’s prosperity agenda in the region. It outlined increased UK engagement with the Gulf States over the coming thirty years, with an aim to broaden already strong defence and security relationships across the Gulf into a wider set of political, economic and cultural engagements.

The concomitant benefit of this would be increased economic activity, a greater role for British business, educational institutions and cultural centres, and closer ties between the populations of Britain and the Gulf. The aim being that after thirty years the policy interests of the UK and the Gulf would align more closely and fuel mutual prosperity, and political stability.

While it is laudable that such long standing partners of the UK are the subject of so much focus and attention from the Government, there are significant challenges to overcome in future years if the goals of the strategy are to be fully realised. Economic interests aside, it is important to note that the UK’s doubling down on its Gulf partners is still built upon on a very sturdy defence and security backbone. The repurposing of HMS Jufair, in October 2015 as a Naval basing station in the Kingdom of Bahrain marked the first major sign of intent that the UK was aligning its interests back “East of Suez”, and deepening its engagement in the Gulf for many years to come. Indeed this signal of the UK being a significant partner in the defence of the Gulf, explicitly means that for all the bandwidth afforded economic diversification and trade, that it is hard power that has historically and will for years to come define the UK’s Gulf relationships.

To this end it is sensible to assume that wider notions of Middle Eastern defence and security between the UK and the Gulf should broadly align. The UK’s long term interests lie firmly in engaging the Gulf States as partners in stabilising the Middle East region, containing the spread of Islamic State and Al Qaeda ideology, and assisting countries wracked by civil conflict with a return to some form of peaceable future. There has been some success, Gulf Diplomats currently play an important role in the UK anti-ISIS communication cell, providing much needed cultural and religious understanding to better target messaging to those most vulnerable to ISIL propaganda and recruitment tactics. Additionally, aircraft from the UAE and Saudi Arabia have at times played a useful role in targeting Islamic State military forces in Syria, with the other Gulf States providing basing and logistical support.

But this is a very transactional view of Britain’s relationship with the Gulf States, and posits that as long as tactical cooperation continues without some larger shared regional vision, that all will be well in the years to come. The truth is quite the opposite, and despite these notable successes in joint security cooperation across the region, all is not well.

Although not as pronounced as in the United States, UK regional policy is fast reverting away from greater dreams of regional stability and prosperity to a counter-terrorism stance. The region’s myriad of cross cutting and intertwined problems are simply too great to solve at present, and the desire to divert the requisite resources to solving them is dwindling. Furthermore, aligning more closely with the Gulf by adopting an aggressive containment of Iran is out of the question.

While Iran’s support for proxies such as Syrian President Bashar al Assad, and a plethora of non-state actors across the Gulf and the Mashreq is destabilising the region and deeply concerning for the United Kingdom it does not present an immediate threat to the UK’s national security. This stands in stark contradiction to the position of the Gulf States, who posit that it is Iranian activity which drives Sunni radicalisation and extremism across the region, and that only by containing Iranian ambitions will the region once again become free of political instability and extremism. But the guarantees to contain Iranian influence that Gulf States seek will not be forthcoming.

This dynamic is not made any easier by the on-going war in Yemen in which the United Kingdom, alongside the United States has supported the Saudi-led military coalition against Houthi rebels which have overtaken the state. As the war drags on toward the end of its second year without any sign of abating, a huge strain has been placed on the United Kingdom’s strategic relationship with the Gulf States, and in particularly Saudi Arabia, particularly in the face of mounting accusations of British complicity in civilian deaths as a result of Saudi-led airstrikes.

The Kingdom has legitimate defence concerns, facing a continued threat from roaming Houthi militias that operate along its border, and who have continuously fired missiles, including SCUD missiles into Saudi sovereign territory, killing military and civilian personnel alike. It is therefore not unreasonable of the Saudis to launch military operations inside Yemen, and to ask for external support to help target armed persons who seek to undermine the Kingdom’s national security.

But as with Syria it is difficult to see an immediate UK national security interest outside of targeting Islamic State and Al Qaeda operatives. So as the deaths in Yemen mount, the contradictions of UK Foreign Policy which seeks to promote democratic and liberal values abroad, alongside the need to reassure uncertain partners at a time of Iranian ascendency become more apparent. To assume that Yemen, which has not seen a year of peace since its reunification in 1994, can return to some form of utopian democracy is of course unrealistic. But the longer Saudi military operations continue, the more the UK comes under increasing scrutiny for the perceived abandonment of its own values.

So what is to be done? The Middle East region will not return to peace and stability any time soon, and so engaging the Gulf States through a multi-lane economic strategy backed up by deployments of hard power into the Gulf signals the UK’s support for the Gulf. Regardless of any British attempt to express concerns about the operation in Yemen, and human rights more generally, the reality is that this is a show of overwhelming support for the Gulf States’ regional activism, and willingness to use hard power to confront Iran.

Most likely the UK will continue to muddle through an unclear strategic relationship, absorbing the reputational blows that come with it, as well as the occasional frustration of Gulf partners who wish to see more being done to confront Iran.  All the while, the UK will quietly focus increasing its portfolio of soft power interests across the Gulf over the coming years. It may be unpalatable to some, but at a time in which the UK needs friends as it plots its path away from the EU, the UK will have little choice but to maintain a close partnership and all the bumps along the road that come with it.