New British Middle East policy on the horizon under Labour

New British Middle East policy on the horizon under Labour

The Labour Party has announced its intention to recognize a Palestinian state if elected. (Reuters)
The Labour Party has announced its intention to recognize a Palestinian state if elected. (Reuters)
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This is a pivotal year, with people in more than 60 countries heading to the polls to vote in national elections. Among these is the general election in the UK that will take place on July 4, in which the Conservative Party, which has ruled for the last 14 years, is predicted to lose power.
In an atmosphere of anti-incumbency, the UK’s recent brief slip into recession and the Conservatives’ weak performance in local elections indicate that the party will face a tough contest next month. This opens the door for a possible Labour government, the first since 2010. The Labour Party’s potential victory will have implications for the UK’s Middle East policy, given its strategic interests in the region.
The next UK government will inevitably be faced with a volatile Middle East and the herculean task of shaping a British foreign policy toward the region that avoids the criticisms faced by the incumbent government’s stance toward Israel-Palestine over the last eight months. In his speech calling the election, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak referred to the region exclusively through the prism of extremism, ignoring the great transition and the opportunity it offers. This echoed his stance on the conflict in Gaza, which has led to a heightened sense of ideological division within the UK, and indeed globally, putting the UK’s foreign policy toward the region under intense scrutiny both at home and abroad.
Most notably, the Labour Party has announced its intention to recognize a Palestinian state as part of a peace process in the region, should it come to power in July. This is significant, given Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer’s previous vocal support for Israeli policies in Gaza, including cutting off the supply of water and electricity, as well as his party’s refusal to endorse an arms embargo on Israel. This has garnered widespread criticism for the party locally and internationally and the change in its stance indicates an effort to avert major electoral losses next month.
Although its view on the subject of Israel and Palestine has evolved over the years, Labour is most prominently associated with its support for the two-state solution and it has traditionally enjoyed the backing of pro-Palestinian sections of British society. However, when in power, the party’s policies have not always aligned with its left-wing, socialist philosophy. The “New Labour” government of Tony Blair was criticized for its anomalous support for the US-led intervention in Iraq, which appeared to be motivated more by the UK’s strategic alignment with the US rather than the former’s concern for peace in the Middle East. A further degree of interventionism during Blair’s tenure was also seen in Kosovo and Sierra Leone, bringing an international nature more common with his Tory predecessors.
More recently, the party has not been supportive of its pro-Palestinian MPs, leading to claims of Islamophobia, the emergence of independent candidates who were previously associated with the party and, most notably, shock losses in recent local elections in primarily Muslim-majority areas where Labour had traditionally enjoyed comfortable wins.

The UK’s foreign policy toward the region has come under intense scrutiny both at home and abroad since Oct. 7. 

Zaid M. Belbagi

The party has also been reluctant to oppose the ruling Conservatives in the sphere of foreign policy, choosing instead to challenge them on matters of domestic reform, such as healthcare, employment and social services. While Labour’s support for constructive diplomatic engagement with Iran over the nuclear deal is promising, it may remain constrained by the UK’s strategic alignment with the US and Israel.
While the conflict in Gaza has shifted the country’s attention toward Israel and Palestine, the UK also has strategic interests in the broader Middle East, with more than £33 billion ($41 billion) in trade with the Gulf states annually and nearly £5 billion of bilateral trade with Egypt, not to mention the British troops and expats present in the region.
In January, the party launched the Labour Middle East Council to strengthen its understanding of and engagement with the region. Further, David Lammy, the UK’s shadow foreign secretary, has made four visits to the Middle East in recent months amid the escalations between Israel and Hamas. He has also said Labour would respect the International Criminal Court’s decision should it request an arrest warrant for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
In the post-Brexit era, the UK has been characterized by a reduced focus on the Middle East, such as with its significant cuts in overseas development assistance in the region. The weakening of substantial commercial partnerships and diplomatic engagement in the region is affecting the credibility of British influence on global politics and multilateral institutions. Labour’s Middle East policy since Oct. 7, much like that of the incumbent government, has evolved in line with the stance of the UK’s Western allies and the international community. This has been detrimental to the image of UK foreign policy as being self-reliant, robust and influential.
In this context, it remains to be seen whether a Labour government will be able to shape a Middle East policy that reinstates the spirit of development assistance and conflict resolution. According to veteran diplomat Arthur Snell, author of How Britain Broke the World, “Starmer is under huge pressure to maintain the obvious distinction from the pro-Palestinian politics of Jeremy Corbyn. However, the excesses of Israeli military action in Gaza have forced him to change his approach and may lead him to recognition of a Palestinian state once in office, which brings with it different challenges but also opportunities for the UK.”
The party must introspect and design a stance on Israel-Palestine, as well as security and development cooperation in the region, in a manner that combines the UK’s strategic interests with its commitment to upholding human rights and prosperity globally. This will be key to reinstating belief in the independence and efficacy of the UK’s foreign policy in the Middle East.

  • Zaid M. Belbagi is a political commentator and an adviser to private clients between London and the Gulf Cooperation Council region. X: @Moulay_Zaid
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