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UK premier throws weight behind Saudi Arabia in decisive speech

Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May talks with guests after making a speech on Monday at the Lord Mayor’s Banquet in London. (Reuters)
LONDON: The UK Prime Minister Theresa May has thrown her weight behind Saudi Arabia and other “key partners” in the Middle East, as she condemned “external aggression” from Iran-backed proxies.
Addressing leading business figures on Monday at a banquet in London, the prime minister said she will “provide support” for allies in the region given the threat from terror groups.
May said: “If we are to achieve enduring stability in the Middle East, we must make an offer which supports both the long-term security and prosperity of our key partners, and encourages them to be champions of the global order.
“As we are doing in countries from Saudi Arabia to Jordan, we will provide support to help them defend and protect their borders and their cities from external aggression — from terrorists to Iranian-backed proxies.”
The premier said she would also step up efforts to help “not just contain, but solve conflicts in the region, from seeking political solutions in Yemen and Libya, to bolstering a united Iraq and working toward a two-state solution in the Middle East Peace Process.”
She said: “While we will stand firm in our support for the Iran nuclear deal, we are also determined to counter destabilizing Iranian actions in the region and their ballistic missile proliferation, working with the US, France and Germany in particular.”
May added: “This support is a matter of urgency. As we see with the events of the last few weeks, from Lebanon to the GCC dispute, our partners see the threats they face as immediate and are straining for the means to tackle them.”
Yossi Mekelberg, professor of international relations at Regent’s University London, said the speech shows that May is displaying her definitive support of Saudi Arabia.
Mekelberg said the timing of May’s speech at the Lord Mayor’s Banquet at London’s Guildhall was also related to concerns about Lebanon’s unstable politics, which is fueling regional rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
“There is a clear departure in her position. She is very clear about what side of the fence she is on … she is siding with Saudi Arabia and Jordan against Iran and Hezbollah,” he said.
“It makes sense because British relations are traditionally closer with Saudi Arabia politically and economically and in the current environment — with the situation in Lebanon and Syria — she is more mindful that she needs to contain Iran.
“It’s refreshing for the PM to have a clear opinion on it. It’s clear that Iran is not playing ball on its nuclear terms and the UK is not happy. Does it represent a change of policy? It’s about clarifying where the UK stands … she has put it in more absolute terms.”
In the same speech on Monday, May blasted Vladimir Putin’s government for trying to “undermine free societies” and “sow discord” in the West by “weaponizing information” and “deploying its state-run media organizations to plant fake stories.”
Matthew Goodwin, professor in the School of Politics and International Relations at the University of Kent, and associate fellow at Chatham House, told Arab News: “While it is tempting to think that these US and UK (political) revolts were all about big data manipulation and Russian bots, the reality is far, far more complex. The deeper question that faces moderate centrists across the West is how can they get back on the front foot in terms of ideas and ideology. Many of those who voted for Brexit, Trump and national populists did so because they support their ideas.”
Experts have been quick to point out the “Churchillian” nature of May’s speech — and said part of the aim was also to show strength amid a number of difficulties at home.
Mekelberg said: “This is a woman who is in a very precarious position … she is being circled by vultures who want to weaken her, such as Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson and Environment Minister Michael Gove.”
Referring to May’s recent struggles with complex Brexit negotiations and Conservative Party infighting, Mekelberg said: “The tone of her speech is unusually strong. Her job is hanging by a thread and she is trying to display a show of strength.
“In light of the dire situation at home, there are elements of her trying to deflect the issue.”
Ben Martill, Dahrendorf Fellow in Europe after Brexit at The London School of Economics (LSE), agreed that May’s strong and clear political stance is designed to divert focus from a crumbling party and the rocky Brexit negotiations.
“Why is (she) choosing to talk about it now,” he said. “It’s because she has never been in a more embattled position so she wants to change the subject.”

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