LONDON – British influence in the Middle East will decline dramatically after Brexit as the UK trades its substantial “soft power” for hard cash from defence deals and arms sales with “authoritarian regimes”, according to analysts, campaigners and opposition politicians.
With only a year left until the UK’s official moment of departure from the European Union, a string of academics, policy experts and opposition politicians have told Middle East Eye that Theresa May’s approach to Brexit is likely to weaken the UK’s diplomatic standing.
In a series of interviews, they said that the UK government’s “flippant” approach to trade and security discussions is leading to a “desperate” rush to sell arms and financial services to Gulf states including Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and UAE.
The prime minister embarked on a tour of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland on Wednesday, when she pledged to keep the UK
But the government has just a few months left to strike a deal on the future UK-EU relationship, which will have major economic and security ramifications for UK interests in the Gulf and trade with the wider Middle East.
The region is key to the UK’s energy security, and the UAE and Saudi Arabia are the UK’s largest export markets in the Middle East worth around £20bn ($28bn) a year according to government figures. But these levels of trade are far below UK trade with the EU.
Other experts and Brexit-supporting backbench Conservatives told MEE the impact of leaving the EU on relationships in the Middle East would “vary from country to country” or offer new “opportunities for trade”.
‘A red, white and blue Brexit’
Addressing 300 British troops on the deck of the now decommissioned Royal Navy helicopter carrier, HMS Ocean, in Bahrain’s Khalifa Bin Salman Port, the prime minister said in December 2016 that she was talking to Gulf leaders about the “opportunities for trade” and security.
She said:[tooltip id=”4500c2f113202943ff1ae30d00c9d4ac”] [/tooltip]“As Britain steps up to forge a new, positive, confident role for our country on the global stage, the Royal Navy will be an important part of our vision – pursuing our objectives of security on land and at sea, and helping to ensure the free flow of international trade.”
Now, nearly 18 months later, the UK is only a year away from formally leaving the EU and entering a 21-month transition period, before the final permanent post-membership relationship is implemented.
And, critics say, the rush to Brexit is leading the government to make “compromising” deals with authoritarian states in the region.
The Tories are making compromising decisions with regimes like Saudi Arabia
– Vince Cable, Lib Dem leader
“I’ve always been in favour of developing good trade relations with emerging powers … The problem with Brexit is that it has made the Conservatives desperate to get signs of potential deals, which is why they are making compromising decisions with regimes like Saudi Arabia when we would usually tread carefully,” Vince Cable, the leader of the Liberal Democrats, told MEE.
Malloch-Brown, the chairman of the group and a former UN deputy secretary-general and Foreign Office minister, told MEE:[tooltip id=”4500c2f113202943ff1ae30d00c9d4ac”] [/tooltip]“Since Britain was replaced by the US as the major Western power east of Suez, UK diplomacy has always been a useful default backup when the US is distracted.
“Now when an erratic administration in Washington is creating turmoil among its Middle Eastern allies, there is no British fallback. Its diplomacy is consumed by its failing Brexit negotiations and it has sacrificed any principled position in the region in a desperate effort to sell arms and financial services to make up for a post-Brexit trade gap.”
Richard Corbett, the leader of Labour’s MEPs in Brussels, added that Conservative claims of future trading relations with the rest of the world were often “flippant or meaningliness” and cited May’s Bahrain speech as evidence that she is failing to “get to grips with reality”.
He added that it was “frankly disgusting” that trade deals with Saudi Arabia and other “regimes” were being pushed to compensate for a downturn in trade with the EU.[tooltip id=”4500c2f113202943ff1ae30d00c9d4ac”] [/tooltip]“Brexit is not going well and she will be desperate to graph a trade deal and will make any concession,” he said.
However, Crispin Blunt, an influential backbench Conservative MP, told MEE the prime minister’s reception in Bahrain “was a good indicator of how an independent trading UK will be well placed to not only secure a trade deal, which is not on the cards with the EU, but build on our already strong Gulf position. The kinds of deals secured during MBS’s [Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman] visit to London also shows opportunity available to UK.”
The decline of soft power
Fresh trade discussions with the Middle East, which is being run by a new trade group in Whitehall, come as the twin pillars of UK foreign policy – a close partnership with Europe via the EU and close ties with the US – are already weakened, if not falling away.
The coordinated international response to the Salisbury poisoning incident has helped repair some damage, but two recent foreign policy stumbles in the Middle East have demonstrated how Britain’s role in the world is vague and influence waning, say experts.
But Peter Millett, a former senior UK diplomat, told MEE that while the impact of Brexit on the Middle East would “vary from one country to another”, the concept of Global Britain risked becoming an “empty slogan unless there is proper funding behind it”.
Millett, who retired as ambassador to Libya earlier this year, told MEE:[tooltip id=”4500c2f113202943ff1ae30d00c9d4ac”] [/tooltip]“For countries where the UK has a deep history, such as Jordan, Libya and the Gulf, Brexit won’t make that much of a difference.
“But across the board it will make a difference, as speaking as a member of the largest trade block in the world means we can back up our political message with a powerful economic message. We will lose this.”
He cited the example of his assistance budget as ambassador in Libya, which was $17m a year compared to the $123m EU budget for the country.
Millett’s view on the role play by defence post-Brexit is supported by Luigi Scazzieri, a research fellow at the Centre for European Reform. He told MEE that the impact of Brexit on UK influence in the Middle East would “depend on keeping up its defence spending” as its soft power inevitably decreases.
‘Bullish about Britain’
Saudi Arabia is pushing for a stronger defence relationship with the UK and the country’s foreign minister, Adel al-Jubeir, used the recent visit by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to say that Riyadh
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