The Conservatives’ struggle with Brexit, the most consequential affair in the country’s recent history and one of their own making, could have a significant impact on Britain’s longstanding ties with its Arab allies in the Gulf.
In fact, the instability surrounding the government and its besieged Prime Minister Theresa May is gradually paving the way for Jeremy Corbyn, the once highly contested Labour leader now increasingly seen as prime minister in-waiting.
Although the next general election is only scheduled for 2022, the current exceptional circumstances could well lead to an earlier vote. In June’s snap election, called by May with the intention of reinforcing her position in government and toward Brexit negotiations, the Tories lost their majority.
If the last general election is anything to go by, Corbyn stands a good chance of putting an end to Labour’s longstanding absence from Downing Street. Labour is just seven seats away from the Tories to have a go at a ruling coalition, and 64 seats from a majority. And Corbyn has put to rest any remnants of former Prime Minister Tony Blair’s pragmatic and pro-business New Labour, instead presiding over a significant left-turn of the party.
An entire career as Labour backbencher, often voting against his own party, leaves some doubts about what kind of foreign policy agenda Corbyn would pursue while in office. Yet the opposition leader has consistently held dogmatic, often radical and deeply ideological positions on issues as diverse as the special relationship with the US, Britain’s nuclear deterrent, terrorism, and the UK’s relations with Iran and the Arab Gulf states.
Of late, for example in his speech on foreign policy in May, Corbyn has tried to build a more moderate image. Nevertheless, his extensive record points to a radical, leftist firebrand struggling to disguise his longstanding instincts.
During a parliamentary meeting in 2009, he called Hezbollah and Hamas “friends,” later expressing regret over his choice of words to MPs investigating accusations of antisemitism in the Labour party. The US assassination of Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden was, in Corbyn’s own words, a “tragedy.” His sympathies for the Irish Republican Army, and his relationship with Sinn Fein, are well known.
The Labour leader’s empathy toward the “progressive” Iranian regime, reflected among other things in a handful of appearances on Iran’s Press TV, stands in sharp contrast with his contempt for the Gulf monarchies.
A Jeremy Corbyn premiership gives GCC states plenty of reasons to worry, including his empathy toward the ‘progressive’ Iranian regime and his economic outlook.
Dr. Manuel Almeida
He is also an admirer of the late Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, a supporter of Cuba’s revolution, and an apologist for the indefensible North Korean regime. In the 2003 book “Anti-Imperialism: A Guide for the Movement,” Corbyn argues that the Soviet Union posed no real threat, and he opposes sanctions on North Korea in response to its nuclear weapons program.
All these positions are indicative enough of the kind of difficulties the Arab Gulf states could come to face in dealing with a possible — many would say probable — Corbyn-led Labour government.
The unrealistic plan of leading Brexiteers has been to take advantage of the withdrawal from the EU to forge a “truly global Britain,” whereby trade ties with traditional allies and partners would become more relevant than ever. While May’s government has made it a priority to reach out to Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states, as attested by the first GCC-UK Summit held late last year, expanding bilateral trade ties could suffer under a Corbyn government.
Corbynism poses another potential, even if more indirect, challenge to the interests of the Arab Gulf states. The longstanding confidence the GCC states have had in Britain’s economy as a destination for major investments would certainly be put to the test by a radical economic program of nationalization and out-of-control public spending.
Coupled with the economic impact of Brexit, this radical and backward economic program could wreak havoc. Plus, the idea that a Labour government will necessarily reverse Brexit is challenged by the fact that at the helm of Britain’s most pro-EU party is a deep Eurosceptic, if not Europhobe. Corbyn’s ambiguous position in the run-up to the referendum was one of the crucial factors undermining the “remain” campaign’s chances.
The Arab Gulf states have plenty of reasons to worry about the growing prospects of a Corbyn premiership. The relative hope, if this possibility comes to fruition, is that institutions and the inevitable need for moderation when in power would curb Corbynism’s most radical and populist inclinations.
• Dr. Manuel Almeida is a political analyst and consultant focusing on the Middle East. He is the former editor of the English online edition of Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper, and holds a Ph.D. in international relations from the London School of Economics and Political Science Twitter: @_ManuelAlmeida