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Britain to the rescue in the Gulf?

Boris Johnson, the British foreign secretary, called for unity in the Gulf during a trip to the region, which began on Friday and included stops in Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.

He will by now be aware that this is the most serious rift in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) since it was established in 1981. The crisis was foreshadowed by a dispute in March 2014 between Qatar and its neighbors. Qatar was accused of giving support to the Muslim Brotherhood across the region, which led Riyadh, Abu Dhabi and Bahrain to withdraw their ambassadors from Doha.

The current dispute blew up on June 5, and led to a second break in diplomatic relations. This time, Egypt joined in. 

What we are seeing now proves that the differences with Doha have festered these past three years and more.

Given that Britain had deep relations with the smaller GCC states — dating back to when the country was trying to keep the peace in the Gulf in the early 19th century — why did it take the foreign secretary five weeks to begin his mediation attempt?

We should note that the US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is also visiting the region, to add his weight to the discussions. One is tempted to ask whether the British were waiting until the Americans decided how to play it. Certainly the local press is focusing on Tillerson’s trip and virtually ignored Johnson’s.

While Tillerson might be considered the real heavyweight in such talks, his position is complicated too by the fact that US President Donald Trump — who in May visited Riyadh, in his first trip abroad since taking  office — began by taking the side of Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Trump and Tillerson are now saying, in an effort to be impartial, that unity in the Gulf region is crucial. 

Instead of having a clear and independent view of the crisis, the British foreign secretary has continued a long tradition of following the US in most of its foreign-policy positions, especially in the Middle East. From the time of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, the government has gone out of its way to please Washington, and seems largely to have lost the power of independent thought.

Instead of having a clear and independent view of the Qatar crisis, Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson has continued the tradition of following the US in most of its foreign policy positions.

Anthony Harris

The current position of the British government, with its slender majority and internal bickering, is not a happy one, as the recent G-20 summit in Hamburg clearly showed. On the big issues — like Syria, Daesh and stability in the Middle East region, North Korea, climate change and international trade — Britain has little influence. These issues were debated by the big players, notably the US, Russia, China and the EU, of which Britain can no longer claim to be an active member, whatever the formal legal position.

Prime Minister Theresa May did her best to show that Britain was throwing its weight behind efforts to combat terror financing, and in support of the Paris Agreement on climate change, but everyone is in favor of the former and she made no impression on Trump on the latter. May made a point of telling everyone that Britain wanted to agree new trade deals with the US, Japan, India and others. These countries have larger economies than Britain, and therefore have stronger hands to play, except possibly India, but the latter country’s economy is expected to overtake Britain’s shortly. 

May got a sympathetic hearing, but everyone knows that Britain cannot do any deals with anyone, until we know what kind of settlement will be reached with the EU — and not, in any case, before the UK leaves the EU in March 2019. No one expects the current government in London to last that long.

I hope that I am wrong, but I do not expect Johnson carried much weight in his discussions in the region. Not only is he obsessed with promoting himself as the next British prime minister, but he has shown little interest in the Gulf previously. He is given to delusional statements meant to show that he knows how to make Britain great again, and that there awaits a golden future for the UK outside the EU. Almost all the senior and statesmanlike figures across the British political spectrum, mostly politicians no longer in government, have said that this is simply untrue.

I am certainly not suggesting that Britain should start lecturing the Gulf states again and telling them what to do, but I can clearly recall the days in the 1990s, when our Arab friends used to seek our opinion on a range of issues, and we were listened to. Despite our track record over the past 20 years, I hope that Britain can still carry some diplomatic weight in the latest Gulf dispute.

• Anthony Harris is former British ambassador to the UAE and career diplomat in the Middle East. He can be reached at [email protected]