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UK policy in the Middle East must change to reflect the new realities – Lords iInternational Relations Committee


The House of Lords International Relations Committee today publishes a report which calls for a major re-shaping of UK policy in the Middle East and questions some of the assumptions and attitudes which have underlain both UK and Western policy for more than a century.

Pointing to the current uncertainties of American Middle East policy, to its ‘mercurial' approach to the region and to the decline in US reliance on Middle Eastern energy sources – and also to the fragmentation of power and the violence of conflicts that have devastated the area – the Report urges fresh thinking from the UK on how it relates to this new Middle East of instability and turmoil. It observes that the outcomes of the Arab Spring mostly disappointed, and in some instances surprised and wrong-footed the world and the policy-shapers, in the UK as elsewhere.

The Committee points out that the UK exports more to the Middle East region than to China and India combined. The Gulf countries are the UK's sixth largest market. Investment in the UK from the region is extremely significant and a key prop of the UK's investment health. Qatari investment in the UK, for example, is £30 billion including investments in Harrods, the Shard, BAA and Sainsbury's.  The UK continues to rely heavily on energy supplies, especially gas, from the region – although this is in decline. The UK's security and internal safety are directly affected by refugee pressures on an unprecedented scale, and by terrorist linkages of many kinds.

For the UK reduced engagement is therefore not an option. But in the digital age the nature of engagement needs to change radically.  It is even more important that the UK develops an effective set of responses that match the entirely new conditions in a region of vast contrasts in wealth and poverty and where 60 percent of the population are under 30. This is a very digitally connected generation, with over 70% of young people getting their news from online sources or social media.

Key considerations for foreign policy of which the post-Election UK Government should take account include:

  • There can no longer be automatic reliance on American leadership, or the direction of its policy, in the Middle East region.
  • The UK may find its stance diverging increasingly from Washington on vital issues such as the Israel-Palestine two-state solution and the importance of the Iran nuclear deal, which the report analyses in detail.
  • The UK should work on a rapprochement with Iran despite US policy. The UK should work with European partners to ensure the stability of the Iran nuclear deal even if this is in opposition to the US. The UK and its European partners should consider active measures to ease restrictions on banks lending money for investment in Iran to help develop new trade relationships. Without this a strategic opportunity will be lost as Iran looks instead to China and Russia.
  • The UK should distance itself from the new US administration's ‘destabilising postures' in relation to the Israel/Palestinian dispute. Israeli policy on settlements is illegal and making a two-state solution increasingly impossible and the UK should reassert its commitment to a two-state solution. The UK should now recognise Palestine as a state, alongside the state of Israel.
  • On arms exports to Saudi Arabia – in the context of the alleged violation of international humanitarian law in Yemen – the Committee says that the UK's reliance on the Saudi led review processes is inadequate.  While it recognises the importance of arms sales to the UK economy they must take place with regard for the UK's international obligations. The Government must now prove its private diplomacy is working, or speak out clearly at the UN Human Rights Council condemning abuses and, if necessary, suspend some arms sales to Saudi Arabia where there is a risk they could be used in violation of international law.
  • Despite leaving the EU, the UK will need to work more closely than ever on Middle East issues with some of its European neighbours, notably France, as part of the ‘deep and special relationship' with the rest of Europe for which the Prime Minister has called.
  • UK relations with the stronger and bigger powers within the region – Saudi-Arabia, Egypt, Iran, Turkey – are all on shifting ground as these countries move in new and different directions and face internal upheaval and change.  The region as a whole is looking increasingly eastwards to Asian involvements, both for trade and security purposes.
  • The complex challenges and ugly dilemmas emanating from the Middle East are no longer just a Western issue or responsibility. The Russian presence is back strongly in the region, and China's involvement is increasing with its growing infrastructure ambitions and energy investments. The issues are global, the threats are global and the full resources of a post-Western world are needed to meet them and to uphold wherever possible a rules-based international order.
  • The UK must deploy both its extensive soft power capabilities with still greater vigour than at present, but also be ready at all times for military (‘hard power') commitment – always in coalition with willing partners – where diplomacy and discourse are rejected, as with Da'esh. The lessons of intervention, or non-intervention, in Iraq, Libya and Syria must be thoroughly learnt.
  • Seizing the opportunities for better and closer UK relations with Middle East countries and peoples involves focussing on wider aspects than trade and security. More emphasis must be given to educational linkages and support, and to issues such as the welcome to the UK for students, visa arrangements and cultural links, as well as ready support for countries seeking to rebuild their shattered cities and communities.  The Government should remove higher education students from net migration figures. 
  • Recognising the turmoil present in the region, UK policy in the Middle East should be to encourage efforts to stabilise the region. “External powers cannot on their own build a peaceful Middle East, which respects the rule of law.”

The Chairman of the Committee, Lord Howell of Guildford, said:

“The Middle East has changed and UK policy in the region must respond to that. As the UK prepares to leave the EU, and we have a new and uncertain American policy in the region, we cannot assume our strategies of the past will suffice.

“We need a new UK Middle East strategy and set of policies that reflect the new reality in the region. We can no longer assume America will set the tone for the West's relationship with the Middle East and the UK must give serious thought to how our own approach will need to change.

“One thing is certain: the UK cannot disengage from the Middle East. What happens there affects us and will continue to do so. From inward investment to the UK, the impact of refugees from the region and our continuing reliance on gas and oil exports, our interests will continue to be intertwined with those of the region and the Government must ensure it has the right plan for our relationship with it.”

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