MESG Seminar - Britain in the Middle East: Does it still have a role?


9 November 2021


Richard Dalton


We should not be talking about mere activity, the daily business of foreign affairs: but about impacts and effects, derived from serious, sustained work, to help shape events for the better.


I look at four topics:


1. We have a dismal record on conflict resolution and human rights, including civil and political rights: and are stuck in a cynical rut.


We won’t be able to “sustain the two-state solution”, our declared policy, and declare that we are close friends and allies of Israel with both countries believing in democracy, as Liz Truss did the other day: it’s contradictory nonsense.  The Israeli state authorities, which blight the lives of millions, no longer share our moral aspirations.


It doesn’t make sense to declare the centrality of Human Rights to our policies, as we do, and try to work closely with Sisi’s Egypt: the second cancels out the first.


We advocate when it suits us and turn a blind eye or help perpetrate horrors ourselves - then we seem disappointed eg over Yemen - when others such as Saudi Arabia are as cynical as we are by cutting off avenues of international investigation in Yemen.


We seldom look beyond abuse of the personal rights of selected groups and individuals.  We neglect to admit to the gross abuses of the right to life perpetrated by us, or with our endorsement, such as futilely harming the lives of Iranians under US sanctions or, worse, in killing hundreds and thousands of civilians during the war on terror.


In other words, who believes us when we speak - for example - of upholding human rights or ending the Israeli occupation?  Certainly not the perpetrators.


2. Our alliances: they suit us, but often render us part of the problems, not part of the solutions: we are not the benign actor we consider ourselves to be. 


What it means in practice to be a close ally of the US in the ME is to contribute to instability.


Iran is a prime example:  US sanctions since 2018 led to the expansion of Iran's nuclear program; there is a direct correlation between sanctions and the increased uranium enrichment in Iran since 2019 that we deplore.


The US has also squeezed the Iranian middle class - the proponents of reform, and strengthened the principlist right.  They have made the current Iranian president, a true conservative of the Iranian revolution, extremely popular.


There is a credible report that the US refused Iran an assurance that they would not renege again on a nuclear agreement during Biden’s administration. I suspect that they are unwilling to take other steps that would assist their aims and ours in Iran by assuring Iran that the promised economic benefits will materialise this time round.


First, providing assurances to financial institutions, companies, and governments alike that permitted trade with Iran will not be penalized, as well as whitelisting acceptable Iranian financial institutions. 


Second, accepting Iran's request for a $5 billion emergency IMF loan to combat COVID, which Trump blocked last year.


Third, unfreezing some of Iran's foreign assets so that they can begin to use the Swiss Humanitarian Trade Arrangement channel, and the European Instrument in Support of Trade Exchange (INSTEX).


These would go some way to restore the missing trust that the US can carry out its undertakings.


For many years, we have had to submit to a combination of malice and incompetence towards Iran by US administrations, which works against our interests.  We couldn’t even follow through our own commitments under the JCPOA, despite our government stating forthrightly in early 2016 that fulfilling them was crucial to the survival of the agreement.


And were the US honest with us, and were we honest with ourselves, about the strategies underlying our actions in Afghanistan: surely it was never just about 9/11, Bin Laden, al-Qaeda, the Taliban, or even revenge. It was also about ideological ambitions to establish a bold U.S. military geo-strategic presence round the world.  Was that our business?


Think of the War on Terror. We were not “making the streets safe in the UK” for which large-scale overseas military deployments are staggeringly ill-suited, but abetting fantasies of US global ambition.  I fear that we made the cardinal mistake of believing the line for public consumption.


Like the ancient Cretans’ sacrifices to the minotaur, we keep on feeding our young men and maidens to the US -  namely our obeisance and our services.  We suppress doubts and soothe our amour-propre by telling ourselves that we can influence the US - but we never succeed in doing so, partly because we whisper in a few highly-placed ears and never call them out publicly. 


Result: with our European partners, we have over-indulged the greedy and dis-functional giant that is the US - our politicians do not speak truth to power and indeed probably never will.  To paraphrase, or rather twist round, what David Cameron said in 2006, we are solid AND slavish.


3. Spending on humanitarian assistance and stability projects is most useful: and undoubtedly helps to ease suffering and to assist civil society.  MENA got about £140 million of the Conflict, Security and Stability Fund (CSSF) in 2019 - rule of law, advancement of women, confronting sexual violence in conflict, refugees, mine clearance - a real role and real benefit on a small scale.  But let’s not think that, even when our efforts are added to the similar programmes of like-minded countries, we can make much of a dent in the prevailing Middle Eastern tyranny with its associated potential IN-stability: it’s like filling a bath tub with the plug out.


4. Working for purely British interests: ie, paddling our own canoe.


This we are quite good at, and this is our main role.  It is a duty of governments of course, but let’s not pretend that pursuing it can be reconciled with being more than bit- player on geopolitical issues.


One of the ways we are good at helping ourselves is in the military sphere: for 50 years since the withdrawal from the Gulf, we have had close relations with their armed forces.  Who has benefitted?  A recently US-published book by Zoltan Barany of the University of Texas and CSIS concludes:


Even though in relative terms no other world region spends more on security, Arabia’s armies remain ineffective because they are characterised by …..the domination of personal connections over institutional norms, disregard for personal responsibility, half-hearted leadership, casual work ethic, and training lacking intensity…..  Massive expenditures on armaments are primarily pay-offs to the US for protecting them and have resulted in bloated and inappropriate arsenals and large-scale corruption.


My conclusions are:


What matters to our country is trade and arms sales, and inward investment.  That makes us a supplicant.


Government statements on policy, and on our ambition to leave the world a better place, are full of happy talk, but what we can actually bring to bear is modest and unremarkable.  We have no leverage and very little influence.


Because of the priority we give to the US, we are a policy taker, not a policy maker


We are unable to do anything serious about big issues such as the two-state solution, an end to the Yemen war, long-term security arrangements in the PG, sustainable societies and human rights.


We can and will be busy and do a lot, but it will not add up to a role in shaping events for the better.


Perhaps the biggest question, though, concerns future military involvement.


If, in future, our allies want us to intervene - the answer should be no, unless we have undertaken first some long-term strategic thinking - relating ends to means - which is an essential discipline that ministers and officials have habitually skimped; and have determined thereby that the intervention will certainly address and not exacerbate the root causes of conflict.


If strategic thinking and dealing with root causes is too rich a mixture for our government to stomach, which I suspect it will be given its addiction to short-term thinking, then they should draw in their horns and concentrate on rebuilding Britain.  If we claw our way out of our present compounded ills, then maybe we could be more assertive again in overseas affairs, including in the Middle East.