Summary of House of Lords Report, The Middle East: Time for New Realism

Posted by Caabu on 05 May 2017

The Middle East: Time for New Realism
House of Lords Select Committee on International Relations

2nd report of Session 2016-17 – a summary of British foreign policy in the Middle East, with recommendations for a new, “modest and realistic” approach

The UK government's foreign policy approach to the Middle East is in need of a “new mindset” according to a report by a committee of former cabinet ministers, senior foreign policy advisers, and diplomats.

The report from the House of Lords Select Committee on International Relations, published on 2 May 2017 and entitled The Middle East: Time for a New Realism (https://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/ld201617/ldselect/ldintrel/159/159.pdf), cautions the Foreign Office against too close a relationship with the “mercurial and unpredictable” Trump White House. Its basis is an appraisal of British foreign policy in the Middle East, both historically and, in more recent terms, since the Arab Spring at the beginning of the decade. It says the region poses “ugly dilemmas” but that the UK must not “remain aloof or walk away.”

Revised Assumptions

The report states that British policy “as it stands has not always adjusted to new conditions”, and that to ensure Britain maintains its “critical interests” in the region, its engagement should be “sustained and developed”. The report is critical of the assumptions that have informed British policy in the past, and calls for these assumptions to be “substantially revised.”

Among these assumptions are the centrality of external states like the US in a field of increasingly multipolar influence – in which China and Russia are now significant players – and the sovereignty of “traditional state borders, drawn a century ago” which are now fractured and weakened. The report finds that the “strategic importance of the Middle East” is defined increasingly in terms of “global security threats”, population displacement from countries such as Syria, Iraq and Yemen, and the “contagions of terrorism and sectarian violence.”

The committee also highlights what it calls “three key contradictions in UK policy”, these being the response to the Arab Spring; its position on President Bashar al-Assad in Syria; and defence exports.

Soft Power

The report says that the young people of MENA countries who gave evidence to the committee “unambiguously valued and admired” British soft power, which they define as “the attraction and persuasive powers of the UK”. Recognisable symbols of this were the UK’s educational institutions, the BBC, and Premier League Football. The report quotes British Council research that equates “cultural engagement” with a positive image of the UK.

The British Council is praised for its ‘skills of public life’ strategy and social action projects for women and children, while the BBC World Service was a “source of authoritative news” and information in the region, “particularly as governments in the region become more controlling.” The report recommends increased investment in the UK’s “expertise and proficiency in Arabic”, in the BBC World Service, and institutions such as the British Council.

The US

The report is stark in its portrayal of an “unstable” field of international powers, in which an “unpredictable US administration” and a “transactional and opportunistic Russia” are “aggravating insecurity” in the MENA. It notes a change in Washington’s assessment of its relationship with the region regarding its “energy and, therefore, economic and security needs”, and predicts that while it may become “more peripheral” in US foreign policy considerations, security considerations would remain.

It is critical of the “unconstructive” positions taken by the Trump administration on a two-state outcome in Israel and Palestine and in its reversal of President Obama’s rapprochement with Iran, and warns that the “mercurial and unpredictable” nature of its policy-making “has the potential to destabilise further” the MENA.

Arab Spring

The report points to Egypt, governed since 2014 by the military regime of President Sisi and now undergoing economic crises and militant insurgencies, as illustrative of the difficulty of “reconciling the UK’s policies of democracy promotion and allying with authoritarian strong-men” in a post-Arab Spring context. The UK had initially supported pro-democracy revolutionary movements seen in countries like Egypt, the report states, but since then has “continued to favour the stability offered by hereditary family rulers”, a position which the committee, in clear terms, says has “undergirded a system of authoritarianism.”

Quoting Neil Crompton, Director of the Middle East and North Africa department at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (https://www.gov.uk/government/policies/peace-and-stability-in-the-middle-east-and-north-africa), the report acknowledges that many of the adverse social and economic conditions that gave rise to the Arab Spring remain, and that they “have not really been addressed by any of the governments in the region.” However, the “ability and willingness” of states to make reforms in these areas is hampered by the “volatility of politics” and “existential crises” within MENA states, according to the report.

Palestine

The committee notes that prospects for a peace process have “dimmed considerably in the last year” as a result of positions taken by the US and Israel. It cites the Trump administration’s equivocation on a two-state outcome, its threats to move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, and the appointment of David Friedman, an advocate of settlements (http://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/1.759434), to the position of ambassador. It also points to a “problematic” Israeli policy and an increase in settlement construction under Prime Minister Netanyahu, jeopardising the integrity of a potential Palestinian state.

The report says that the UK Government has shown no “robustness” in its approach to such actions by Israel, and that it has weakened its support of EU diplomatic efforts to foster a new peace process under French stewardship.

The committee condemns the Israeli government’s settlement expansion policy as “illegal and an impediment to peace”, and urges the Government not to follow Washington’s lead and instead be “more forthright” in its support of a two-state outcome. The best way to do this, according to the report, is to give “very serious consideration to now recognising Palestine as a state”.

Syria

Syria represents a “humbling example of the inability of the United Nations to operate effectively” when Security Council members take opposing stances, and that this failure had prompted efforts like the Astana Process (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-38712444), sponsored by Russia, Iran and Turkey, to take place outside of established international frameworks.

The committee endorsed the recent US military strike on a Syrian airbase as “justified and proportionate” in response to a chemical weapons attack on Khan Sheikhoun in Idlib province. The report does not advocate a concrete position on a resolution to the civil war but states that the “contradictions in international policy” towards Assad “must be rethought”, and that while there are “no good options” on the table, the UK must commit itself to achieving a “negotiated solution.”

The report suggests that Russian intervention in Syria “underscores the limits” of Moscow’s power in exerting influence over a wide variety of parties to the conflict, and that in the event of a resolution, foreign investment will likely be required from countries like Saudi Arabia and Qatar, which would “seek a political transition” away from Assad.

In the broader sense, the report states that military intervention “may be unavoidable where all diplomacy and discourse is rejected”, but recommends that “intellectual, diplomatic and soft power resources must be used to the full” when Britain engages with both centralised and decentralised power bases and influences in MENA countries.

Yemen

Yemen represents “an opportunity for deeper and more active UN engagement”, according to the report. The UK should “support UN efforts at mediation in Yemen” as well as in Libya and Syria, and should urge Saudi Arabia to “demonstrate its constructive cooperation” with the peace process. A UN Security Council report found that 60% of the 10,000 civilian deaths in Yemen were “highly likely” to have been caused by the Saudi-led coalition, which is in receipt of UK arms exports, and that the conflict and famine in the country have “jeopardised UK development work in the region”.

Regional Power

Bahrain, Iraq, Yemen and Syria are all being destabilised by a “competition for regional hegemony between Iran and Saudi Arabia” according to the report. Tehran’s support of Shia militias in Iraq and its direct intervention in Syria, as well as its support of proxies in Syria and Yemen, are at odds with Riyadh’s intervention in Yemen and its own backing of “Salafi jihadist militias” in Syria. The committee accepts that this conflict, played out regionally, is chiefly political in nature, and that the “interests of the international community are ill-served by this rivalry.”

Faced with changing power dynamics, the committee says that UK “cannot rely merely on its traditional allies”, but accepts that it will have to maintain “productive” relationships with regional powers, despite “concerns about their own internal political direction”. A “modus vivendi” should be developed that would prevent the escalation of a Saudi-Iranian rivalry.

Economy

On economic policies, the report considers the fall in oil prices and subsequent reduction in revenues for oil producing countries now “contemplating a future in which world oil and gas supplies are likely to keep prices subdued, while demand growth for hydrocarbons is curbed”. It anticipates that the UK’s reliance on Middle East natural gas is “likely to grow”.

Unlike the US, the report states, the UK does not “have the luxury... of reducing its exposure to, or engagement with” political or economic instability in the Middle East, and will rely on “investment flows from the region” as an integral component of its “continued economic health.”

Defence

Trade in goods and services between the UK and Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries was valued at £18.9 billion in 2015, of which the UK’s largest market is in the United Arab Emirates (https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/exporting-to-the-united-arab-emirates/exporting-to-the-united-arab-emirates), according to the report. A significant portion of this market is in defence exports, and in 2015 the UK’s defence exports to the Middle East “constituted over 60% of the UK’s £7.7 billion defence export market.” It says UK sales of arms to countries that might commit human rights violations is a “troubling aspect” of British policy and predicts further conflicts of interest as post-Brexit trade deals are negotiated.

The report acknowledges the complications posed by these defence links to the UK’s “humanitarian responsibilities” and “obligations under international law”, and in the case of defence exports to Saudi Arabia, which is leading the GCC coalition’s military intervention in Yemen, quotes Americans for Democracy & Human Rights in Bahrain (http://www.adhrb.org/) which said that UK support had “likely extended the conflict and deepened UK complicity in a humanitarian catastrophe”. It says reliance upon Saudi assurances of Arms Trade Treaty compliance is not “adequate”, and calls upon the Government to “demonstrate that its private diplomacy is working” in its scrutiny of Saudi-led intervention in Yemen or “speak out clearly” and condemn violations of international law.

Brexit

The report predicts that the UK’s departure from the EU will, overall, have a “limited impact on bilateral state relations” and security cooperation with countries in the Middle East, but cautions that the UK’s need for renewed or renegotiated relationships outside of an EU bloc context may leave it “more malleable and susceptible to influence”, according to Jane Kinninmont of Chatham House (https://www.chathamhouse.org/).

The chief consequences of Brexit, says the report, will be in “commercial, trade and development policy”, where the UK’s departure from EU financial programmes may reduce its influence in certain areas. It urges the Government to “continue to work closely” with the EU on development policy.

One area of importance is in the UK’s role as a “hinge-power” between the EU and the US, where the UK’s leverage in both directions may be limited. In the context of foreign policy cooperation post-Brexit, the report does not mention the transatlantic partnership but highlights the importance of maintaining strong bilateral relations with European partners, citing the “historic role” of France in the MENA region.