What the Middle East could expect from the UK’s Liz Truss government 

Analysis As Liz Truss takes over at 10 Downing Street, experts underscore the importance of continued deepening of UK-Gulf relations. (AFP)
As Liz Truss takes over at 10 Downing Street, experts underscore the importance of continued deepening of UK-Gulf relations. (AFP)
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Updated 13 September 2022

What the Middle East could expect from the UK’s Liz Truss government 

What the Middle East could expect from the UK’s Liz Truss government 
  • New PM is expected to finalize a UK-GCC free trade deal announced in June worth £33.5 billion 
  • Truss might be more hawkish on Iran than Johnson, but less helpful on Israel-Palestine conflict

LONDON: The appointment of Liz Truss as the UK’s new prime minister represents as much an opportunity as a moment of suspense for Gulf relations, with her enthusiasm for the region matched by her being perceived as a “wild card,” according to analysts.

An early challenge arrived with the passing of the longest serving monarch in British history in Truss’ very first week in office. The death of Queen Elizabeth II at Balmoral Castle on Thursday thrust the country into a royal succession at a time of economic upheaval and political transition.

Paying homage to a figure who was viewed by Britons as a beacon of stability and a rare symbol of continuity and national unity, Truss described the late queen as “the rock on which modern Britain was built” while expressing hope that “in the difficult days ahead, we will come together with our friends ... to celebrate her extraordinary lifetime of service.”

Although her immediate focus will undoubtedly be on the domestic cost-of-living crisis and spiraling energy bills, there are growing calls for Truss to ensure continuity in strengthening relations with the Gulf states.

Chris Doyle, director of the Council for Arab-British Understanding, expects Truss will prioritize the finalization of the UK-GCC free trade agreement announced in June, which is potentially worth £33.5 billion ($38.5 billion) in new deals.

“Trade deals will speak to her primary objective upon taking office, and that’ll be getting the economy sorted,” said Doyle. “There are warm relations between the UK and the GCC and I do not see that changing dramatically. On this, it’ll likely be a ‘steady as you go’ relationship.”




Prime Minister Liz Truss speaking outside 10 Downing Street. (AFP)

Concurring with this assessment, David Jones MP, a Conservative and Truss supporter who chairs the UK-UAE All-Party Parliamentary Group, said the new prime minister “recognizes the importance” of the GCC countries.

“As former international trade secretary and foreign secretary, Ms. Truss fully appreciates the crucial importance to the UK of maintaining strong relations with our steadfast regional ally, the UAE,” Jones told Arab News.

“I have no doubt that, under her leadership, those relations will be strengthened still further into a mainstay of regional and global security.”

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While hosting the GCC foreign ministers in December last year, Truss herself stressed that “closer economic and security ties with our Gulf partners will deliver jobs and opportunities for British people and help make us all safer.”

But for Doyle, these comments also exposed areas of concern, notably the new prime minister’s “transactional” approach to foreign policy, which tends to ignore the importance of building strong interpersonal relationships.

“Truss showed during her time in the foreign office a very transactional nature when dealing with other countries — one devoted to trade, the economy, and what Britain could get out (of) it. It was looking very much at the short-term benefits,” said Doyle.

“I don’t expect to see that change as she steps up into the new role and I think her focus when it comes to the Middle East will be very much about getting the free trade deal over the line.”

Such a short-term focus in strategy ties in with what Bronwen Maddox, director and chief executive of Chatham House, considers the core of Truss’ perceived political identity as a “disruptor” or even a “wild card.”

For Maddox, the new prime minister’s reputation and apparent desire to deliberately inject unpredictability into proceedings could be “both a strength and a potentially calamitous weakness.”

“A degree of improvisation in a leadership campaign is inevitable, but the priority of the next UK prime minister should be serious. If she indulges this (disruptor approach) without good judgment, she could do real damage to Britain’s prospects and world standing,” she added.

Such concerns appear well-founded and widely shared. According to Doyle, Truss demonstrated a distinct lack of interest or commitment to global affairs during her time at the foreign office.

“Foreign relations should be about building relations, long-term, but she does not seem to have a vision for foreign relations and quite what that means remains an unknown. But her time in the post lacked any real investment in these things. I’d expect her to be a pretty domestic-focused prime minister.”

Lina Khatib, director of the Middle East and North Africa program at Chatham House, says she would like to see this change, suggesting a priority for Truss and her new foreign secretary, James Cleverly, would be to restore a dedicated cabinet position for the region.




The UK's new Foreign Secretary James Cleverly. (AFP)

“The Middle East portfolio remains hefty and complex and requires diplomatic engagement to match,” Khatib told Arab News.

“This not only means restoring diplomatic cabinet distribution to give the region the attention it requires but also revising the UK’s approach, putting Iran’s regional interventions high on the agenda and in parallel to efforts on the Iran nuclear deal.”

Cleverly takes up the UK government’s foreign brief having previously served in a junior foreign office post managing the Middle East and North Africa portfolio, which included responsibility for dealing with Iran over the detention of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe.

He traveled extensively in the Middle East during this time, including trips to the UAE, Kuwait, Oman and Qatar. He was in Bahrain when the country appointed its first ambassador to Israel under the Abraham Accords, which he described as “genuinely a joyous occasion.”

Cleverly was an early supporter of Truss’ bid for the leadership, believing she would lay down a more robust challenge to Iran than her predecessors.




Truss took over from Boris Johnson, center-left, after a protracted Conservative Party leadership contest. (AFP/File Photo)

Truss won the grueling two-month battle to replace Boris Johnson on Sept. 5, beating her rival Rishi Sunak with 57 percent of the vote — the tightest margin of victory since Iain Duncan Smith was elected party leader in 2001 while the Conservatives were in opposition. 

Doyle agrees that Truss will likely “take a more hawkish view than Johnson” when it comes to Iran. “Where I do expect that a Truss premiership will be even tougher and take a less helpful line is on Israel-Palestine,” he told Arab News.

“Under Johnson, government policy was dire and extremely partisan to one side: Israel. Truss will go even further, including reviewing moving the UK’s embassy to Jerusalem. It will be a deeply unfair and wrong approach to adopt.”

There are some Middle East watchers who are broadly optimistic about relations under Truss’ stewardship. Charlotte Leslie, director of the Conservative Middle East Council, believes Truss proved her bona fides during her time as foreign secretary.

“Personalities really matter in negotiations and Truss has demonstrated that she sees the GCC as close allies and friends, so I expect to see solid agreements reached that will quickly grow the almost £30 billion ($34.5 billion) already invested in each other’s economies,” Leslie told Arab News.

“The new prime minister will be looking to demonstrate the UK remains a strong, reliable, global friend and ally of choice. In a turbulent world, friends are more important than ever.”

 


Albanian who entered UK in back of truck recalls serving lunch to Queen Elizabeth

Albanian who entered UK in back of truck recalls serving lunch to Queen Elizabeth
Updated 11 sec ago

Albanian who entered UK in back of truck recalls serving lunch to Queen Elizabeth

Albanian who entered UK in back of truck recalls serving lunch to Queen Elizabeth
  • Catering course gave Ismet Shehu chance to serve late monarch during Diamond Jubilee celebrations
  • ‘Can you imagine that? A poor boy from the countryside serving lunch to the queen of England?’

LONDON: An Albanian who traveled to Britain hidden in a truck has told the Daily Mail that he served lunch to the late Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip during Diamond Jubilee celebrations.

Ismet Shehu, now 32, made the dangerous journey aged 17 after traveling to Italy and then France, where in Lille he entered the back of a truck heading for Britain.

Shehu entered the construction and hospitality industries after arriving in the UK, working low-wage jobs before signing up to a university course teaching high-end catering in London.

That course, as part of its training program, offered a small group of students — including Shehu — the opportunity to serve lunch to Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip during the 2012 Diamond Jubilee celebrations.

Now back in Tirana, the Albanian capital, Shehu has used his experience in hospitality to open a range of successful restaurants.

He told the Mail: “Can you imagine that? A poor boy from the countryside serving lunch to the queen of England?

“It was such an honor for me to do that and all just a couple of years after getting into the country hiding in the back of a lorry. It was the most frightening experience of my life.”


Beijing, Shenzhen scrap COVID-19 tests for public transport

Beijing, Shenzhen scrap COVID-19 tests for public transport
Updated 03 December 2022

Beijing, Shenzhen scrap COVID-19 tests for public transport

Beijing, Shenzhen scrap COVID-19 tests for public transport
  • Slight relaxation of COVID-19 testing requirements comes even as daily virus infections reach near-record highs

BEIJING: Local Chinese authorities on Saturday announced a further easing of COVID-19 curbs, with major cities such as Shenzhen and Beijing no longer requiring negative tests to take public transport.
The slight relaxation of COVID-19 testing requirements comes even as daily virus infections reach near-record highs, and follows weekend protests across the country by residents frustrated by the rigid enforcement of anti-virus restrictions that are now entering their fourth year, even as the rest of the world has opened up.
The southern technological manufacturing center of Shenzhen said Saturday that commuters no longer need to show a negative COVID-19 test result to use public transport or when entering pharmacies, parks and tourist attractions.
Meanwhile, the capital Beijing said Friday that negative test results are also no longer required for public transport from Dec. 5. However, a negative result obtained within the past 48 hours is still required to enter venues like shopping malls, which have gradually reopened with many restaurants and eateries providing takeout services.
The requirement has led to complaints from some Beijing residents that even though the city has shut many testing stations, most public venues still require COVID-19 tests.
The government reported 33,018 domestic infections found in the past 24 hours, including 29,085 with no symptoms.
As the rest of the world has learned to live with the virus, China remains the only major nation still sticking to a “zero-COVID” strategy which aims to isolate every infected person. The policy, which has been in place since the pandemic started, led to snap lockdowns and mass-testing across the country.
China still imposes mandatory quarantine for incoming travelers to the country, even as its infection numbers are low compared to its 1.4 billion population.
The recent demonstrations, the largest and most widely spread in decades, erupted Nov. 25 after a fire in an apartment building in the northwestern city of Urumqi killed at least 10 people.
That set off angry questions online about whether firefighters or victims trying to escape were blocked by locked doors or other anti-virus controls. Authorities denied that, but the deaths became a focus of public frustration.
The country saw several days of protests across various cities, including Shanghai and Beijing, with protesters demanding an easing of COVID-19 curbs. Some demanded Chinese President Xi Jinping step down, an extraordinary show of public dissent in a society over which the ruling Communist Party exercises near total control.
Xi’s government has promised to reduce the cost and disruption of controls but says it will stick with “zero-COVID.” Health experts and economists expect it to stay in place at least until mid-2023 and possibly into 2024 while millions of older people are vaccinated in preparation for lifting controls that keep most visitors out of China.
While the government has conceded some mistakes, blamed mainly on overzealous officials, criticism of government policies can result in punishment. Former NBA star Jeremy Lin, who plays for a Chinese team, was recently fined 10,000 yuan ($1,400) for criticizing conditions in team quarantine facilities, according to local media reports.
On Friday, World Health Organization emergencies director Dr. Michael Ryan said that the UN agency was “pleased” to see China loosening some of its coronavirus restrictions, saying “it’s really important that governments listen to their people when the people are in pain.”


Russia likely planning to encircle Donetsk Oblast town of Bakhmut, Britain says

Russia likely planning to encircle Donetsk Oblast town of Bakhmut, Britain says
Updated 03 December 2022

Russia likely planning to encircle Donetsk Oblast town of Bakhmut, Britain says

Russia likely planning to encircle Donetsk Oblast town of Bakhmut, Britain says
  • Capture of the town would have limited operational value
  • But it can potentially allow Russia to threaten Kramatorsk and Sloviansk

Russia is likely planning to encircle the Donetsk Oblast town of Bakhmut with tactical advances to the north and south, Britain’s defense ministry said on Saturday.
The capture of the town would have limited operational value but it can potentially allow Russia to threaten Kramatorsk and Sloviansk, the ministry added in a daily intelligence update.
“There is a realistic possibility that Bakhmut’s capture has become primarily a symbolic, political objective for Russia,” the ministry said in the update posted on Twitter.


UN human rights chief decries new Myanmar death sentences

UN human rights chief decries new Myanmar death sentences
Updated 03 December 2022

UN human rights chief decries new Myanmar death sentences

UN human rights chief decries new Myanmar death sentences
  • Military-installed government using capital punishment as a tool to crush opposition
  • At least seven university students were sentenced to death behind closed doors on Wednesday

BANGKOK: Myanmar’s military-installed government has sentenced more critics to death, bringing the total to 139, and is using capital punishment as a tool to crush opposition, the UN high commissioner for human rights said Friday.
High Commissioner Volker Turk said at least seven university students were sentenced to death behind closed doors on Wednesday, and there are reports that as many as four more youth activists were sentenced on Thursday.
“The military continues to hold proceedings in secretive courts in violation of basic principles of fair trial and contrary to core judicial guarantees of independence and impartiality,” Turk said in a statement. “Military courts have consistently failed to uphold any degree of transparency contrary to the most basic due process or fair trial guarantees.”
The military seized power in February last year, ousting the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi. The army’s action was met with widespread peaceful protests that were quashed with lethal force, triggering armed resistance that some UN experts have characterized as civil war.
Turk said the military-installed government has arrested nearly 16,500 people for opposing the army takeover, including about 1,700 who have been convicted in secret courts without access to lawyers.
The Students’ Union of Dagon University in Yangon, the country’s largest city, announced Thursday on its Facebook page that seven university students between the ages of 18 and 24 who were arrested on April 21 had been sentenced to death Wednesday by a military court in Yangon’s Insein Prison.
An executive member of the Dagon University Students’ Union told The Associated Press that the seven were accused of links to an urban guerrilla group opposed to military rule and convicted of murder for allegedly taking part in shooting a bank branch manager in April.
In late July, the government hanged four political activists, in the country’s first executions in at least three decades.
The hangings prompted condemnations from Western nations and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which has sought to defuse the crisis with a five-point plan that the military government has failed to implement.
“By resorting to use death sentences as a political tool to crush opposition, the military confirms its disdain for the efforts by ASEAN and the international community at large to end violence and create the conditions for a political dialogue to lead Myanmar out of a human rights crisis created by the military,” Turk said.


Pentagon debuts its new stealth bomber, the B-21 Raider

Pentagon debuts its new stealth bomber, the B-21 Raider
Updated 03 December 2022

Pentagon debuts its new stealth bomber, the B-21 Raider

Pentagon debuts its new stealth bomber, the B-21 Raider
  • “The way it operates internally is extremely advanced compared to the B-2, because the technology has evolved so much in terms of the computing capability that we can now embed in the software of the B-21,” Warden said

PALMDALE , California: America’s newest nuclear stealth bomber made its debut Friday after years of secret development and as part of the Pentagon’s answer to rising concerns over a future conflict with China.
The B-21 Raider is the first new American bomber aircraft in more than 30 years. Almost every aspect of the program is classified.
As evening fell over the Air Force’s Plant 42 in Palmdale, the public got its first glimpse of the Raider in a tightly-controlled ceremony. It started with a flyover of the three bombers still in service: the B-52 Stratofortress, the B-1 Lancer and the B-2 Spirit. Then the hangar doors slowly opened and the B-21 was towed partially out of the building, its wheels inching close to the outer pavement.
“This isn’t just another airplane,” Austin said. “It’s the embodiment of America’s determination to defend the republic that we all love.”
The B-21 is part of the Pentagon’s efforts to modernize all three legs of its nuclear triad, which includes silo-launched nuclear ballistic missiles and submarine-launched warheads, as it shifts from the counterterrorism campaigns of recent decades to meet China’s rapid military modernization.
China is on track to have 1,500 nuclear weapons by 2035, and its gains in hypersonics, cyber warfare and space capabilities present “the most consequential and systemic challenge to US national security and the free and open international system,” the Pentagon said this week in its annual China report.
”We needed a new bomber for the 21st Century that would allow us to take on much more complicated threats, like the threats that we fear we would one day face from China, Russia, ” said Deborah Lee James, the Air Force secretary when the Raider contract was announced in 2015.
While the Raider may resemble the B-2, once you get inside, the similarities stop, said Kathy Warden, chief executive of Northrop Grumman Corp., which is building the bomber.
“The way it operates internally is extremely advanced compared to the B-2, because the technology has evolved so much in terms of the computing capability that we can now embed in the software of the B-21,” Warden said.
Other changes include advanced materials used in coatings to make the bomber harder to detect, Austin said.
“Fifty years of advances in low-observable technology have gone into this aircraft,” Austin said. “Even the most sophisticated air defense systems will struggle to detect a B-21 in the sky.”
Other advances likely include new ways to control electronic emissions, so the bomber could spoof adversary radars and disguise itself as another object, and use of new propulsion technologies, several defense analysts said.
“It is incredibly low observability,” Warden said. “You’ll hear it, but you really won’t see it.”
Six Raiders are in production. The Air Force plans to build 100 that can deploy either nuclear weapons or conventional bombs and can be used with or without a human crew. Both the Air Force and Northrop also point to the Raider’s relatively quick development: The bomber went from contract award to debut in seven years. Other new fighter and ship programs have taken decades.
The cost of the bombers is unknown. The Air Force previously put the price at an average cost of $550 million each in 2010 dollars — roughly $753 million today — but it’s unclear how much is actually being spent. The total will depend on how many bombers the Pentagon buys.
“We will soon fly this aircraft, test it, and then move it into production. And we will build the bomber force in numbers suited to the strategic environment ahead,” Austin said.
The undisclosed cost troubles government watchdogs.
“It might be a big challenge for us to do our normal analysis of a major program like this,” said Dan Grazier, a senior defense policy fellow at the Project on Government Oversight. “It’s easy to say that the B-21 is still on schedule before it actually flies. Because it’s only when one of these programs goes into the actual testing phase when real problems are discovered.” That, he said, is when schedules start to slip and costs rise.
The B-2 was also envisioned to be a fleet of more than 100 aircraft, but the Air Force built only 21, due to cost overruns and a changed security environment after the Soviet Union fell.
Fewer than that are ready to fly on any given day due to the significant maintenance needs of the aging bomber, said
The B-21 Raider, which takes its name from the 1942 Doolittle Raid over Tokyo, will be slightly smaller than the B-2 to increase its range, Warden said. It won’t make its first flight until 2023. However, Warden said Northrop Grumman has used advanced computing to test the bomber’s performance using a digital twin, a virtual replica of the one being unveiled.
Ellsworth Air Force Base in South Dakota will house the bomber’s first training program and squadron, though the bombers are also expected to be stationed at bases in Texas and Missouri.
US Sen. Mike Rounds, a Republican of South Dakota, led the state’s bid to host the bomber program. In a statement, he called it “the most advanced weapon system ever developed by our country to defend ourselves and our allies.”
Northrop Grumman has also incorporated maintenance lessons learned from the B-2, Warden said.
In October 2001, B-2 pilots set a record when they flew 44 hours straight to drop the first bombs in Afghanistan after the Sept. 11 attacks. The B-2 often does long round-trip missions because there are few hangars globally that can accommodate its wingspan, which limits where they can land for maintenance. The hangars also must be air-conditioned because the Spirit’s windows don’t open and hot climates can cook cockpit electronics.
The new Raider will also get new hangars to accommodate the size and complexity of the bomber, Warden said.
However with the Raider’s extended range, ‘it won’t need to be based in-theater,” Austin said. “It won’t need logistical support to hold any target at risk.”
A final noticeable difference was in the debut itself. While both went public in Palmdale, the B-2 was rolled outdoors in 1988 amid much public fanfare. Given advances in surveillance satellites and cameras, the Raider was just partially exposed, keeping its sensitive propulsion systems and sensors under the hangar and protected from overhead eyes.
“The magic of the platform,” Warden said, “is what you don’t see.”