UK should pivot back to Middle East


UK should pivot back to Middle East

UK should pivot back to Middle East
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Oct. 7, 2023, and the weeks following have sent shock waves around the world, and through European capitals as much as any. In the minds of many in the Middle East and North Africa, Europe, including both the EU and the UK, had shown a steady waning of interest over the past decade or so, coinciding with the presumed retreat of the US, but punctuated by spurts of activity, as over Iran and its nuclear ambitions. Whatever the reality of this perception, what must now be clear is that such a declining interest is no more. The world has changed. There can be no return to Oct. 6.
The EU has been long bedeviled by a sense of relative underperformance in the region, both in terms of ambition and delivery. Despite the bloc’s commitment, through its “Global Strategy” of 2016, to promote “multilateral cooperation” and “foster dialogue and negotiation on regional conflict,” little was seen of any substance, as regular damning surveys on its influence suggested. The impression of a continental Europe too close to US policy, while increasingly disunited, had real substance. Policy differences with the Visegrad Group, not least over Israel, and the very real differences of geographical emphasis between eastern and southern EU states told their own stories.
The UK’s policy toward the Middle East and North Africa has, in recent years, been something of a roller coaster. At the beginning of the last decade, then-Prime Minister David Cameron sought to redress what he considered to be years of a previous governmental neglect of old friends by announcing a “Gulf Initiative.” This resulted in Foreign Secretary William Hague creating a raft of bilateral, high-level policy and strategy groups across the region, all of which have survived and prospered over the years, providing a regular platform for discussions across a range of issues, such as trade, visas, security and investment to mutual benefit. The minister of state designated for this took the title of “Minister for the Middle East and North Africa,” at first with other roles and then, from 2017 to 2019, with a sole focus on the region both at the Department for International Development and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. The overall impression was that the MENA region mattered to the UK, from finance to defense.
Events from 2011 needed such proper attention. The handling of the various crises related to the Arab uprisings exercised the Foreign and Commonwealth Office — said to be at its busiest since the Second World War — and intensified relationships through the UK’s participation in the various international diplomatic “small groups” set up to tackle the events and consequences throughout the region.
There were successes in respect of Daesh, though at immense costs in human terms, and the significant efforts made by the UK in relation to the Iran nuclear deal, but also setbacks, as with Syria in 2013. However, overall, that the region mattered to the UK could not have been doubted.
Any internal rifts of policy involving the UK were settled as the country left the EU. The Brexit vote, and subsequent exit from the EU, should have mattered least to the region. The EU’s lack of engagement and the UK’s much longer history meant that the loss of London’s EU status had little practical effect and relationships would be little affected in theory. But the years of implementation of Brexit from 2016 onwards coincided with other changes that had an impact on how the UK has been seen.
The ministerial title and singular role was dropped and, for a while, the Middle East was separated from the North Africa portfolio. Relatively small administrative changes in the UK looked different when seen from abroad. The collapse of the Department for International Development into the Foreign and Commonwealth Office came at the same time as the reduction in the UK’s commitment to development from 0.7 percent of gross national income to 0.5 percent, with programs supporting economic projects and refugees in the region being cut.

It is not too late for Europe to step up its game in the region, recognizing current events as the defining issue of our times.

Alistair Burt

But perhaps the biggest visible change in positioning came with the publication of the UK’s “Integrated Review” of defense, security, development and foreign policy in 2021. The review was designed to recognize growing global turbulence but, with stretched and finite resources, positioning the UK afresh in one sphere came at a cost to others. The tilt to the Indo-Pacific in both economic and security terms matched that of some other states, but the overall sense that the Middle East had been downgraded was hard to miss or explain away.
The “refresh” of the policy this year helped a little, as did the reconstituting of elements of the Middle East minister’s role under the hard-working and engaged Lord Ahmad. But the review so concerned the UK’s House of Commons that it has now commissioned a Foreign Affairs Select Committee inquiry into MENA policy. The inquiry’s chair, Alicia Kearns MP, has made no secret of her concerns that there had not recently been “sufficient focus” on the region.
The UK played its part in supporting some positive diplomatic and economic initiatives in 2022 and 2023. An end to the region’s conflicts and wider stability is very much in the UK’s interests, not just for trade and energy supplies, but also for the new Middle East that so many long for. That the region has grown more assertive in its foreign policy, as in discussions between Saudi Arabia and the UAE with Iran, without the need to look over shoulders to Washington, is a positive development, though the UK has a keen interest in ensuring that one superpower in the region is not replaced by any others. London welcomed and supported the Abraham Accords, bringing together as they did key Gulf and North African allies with Israel, hinting at a new integrated region, as did the prospect of normalization between Saudi Arabia and Israel.
But there was a nagging doubt about the marginalization of the Palestinian issue in these discussions and constant warnings of clouds ahead. The UK was not the only state to hope that the slipping down of Israel-Palestine on the diplomatic agenda represented reality rather than wishful thinking, while the expansion of settlements, increased violence in the West Bank and pressures on the holy sites in Jerusalem escalated and bandwidth was consumed by Ukraine.
Now, London and other European capitals are united in dealing with the horrors of the terrorist assault on Oct. 7 and the dreadful humanitarian aftermath being seen daily in Gaza. The human costs in the region, both now and in the future, of a failure to finally resolve issues between Israel and the Palestinian people hardly bear thinking about. But the impact on Europe of conflict, terror and migration is not negligible either and is already having an impact on its streets and its politics — and this ahead of a big election year for Western democracies.
It is not too late for Europe to step up its game in the MENA region, recognizing current events as the defining issue of our times. The issue of Israel and Palestine — after too many years of too many vested interests saying “no” — still has a greater power to disrupt than those which followed 2011. The UK has convening diplomatic power, history and every incentive to urgently work with others on the comprehensive resolution that is now the only plausible way forward, as patching up and pure military options will never secure justice, peace and security for all.
It is time.

Alistair Burt is a former UK Member of Parliament who has twice held ministerial positions in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office — as Parliamentary Under Secretary of State from 2010 to 2013 and as Minister of State for the Middle East from 2017 to 2019.
X: @AlistairBurtUK

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