As Britain finalized its departure from the European Union (EU) on January 1, questions were raised over how this could impact its foreign policy. A key area of consideration was the Middle East region, where Britain has historic engagement and relations, and has doubled down on boosting ties with its traditional regional allies.
The UK managed to avoid a car-crash, no deal Brexit with the EU and forged a trade agreement with Brussels last December. However, Boris Johnson’s Conservative government has embodied a degree of populist isolationism, with fantastical desires to forge a strong independent UK again, glorified as a “global Britain.”
“Global Britain is about reinvesting in our relationships, championing the rules-based international order and demonstrating that the UK is open, outward-looking and confident on the world stage,” according to a UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) statement.
Still, should the UK continue pursuing a more individualistic path, this could hinder its diplomatic clout in the Middle East and leave it even more reliant on arms sales and ties with its historic allies.
Should the UK continue pursuing a more individualistic path, this could hinder its diplomatic clout in the Middle East and leave it even more reliant on arms sales and ties with its historic allies.
After the EU referendum in June 2016, where a slim majority of the British public voted to leave the bloc, there was speculation over whether Britain would pursue an “Atlantic” or “European” oriented Middle East policy, as Przemyslaw Osiewicz analyzed.
Amidst much drawn-out and fruitless negotiating between London and Brussels since 2016, Britain successfully increased trade ties with its partners in the Middle East, particularly in the Gulf. UK and Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) trade now amounts to around US$50.8 billion of London’s US$57.2 billion trade with the Middle East region as a whole.
During a visit to London in March 2017, Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman saw a golden opportunity to strike new trade agreements with then-Prime Minister Theresa May. This included a trade deal worth over US$2 billion, and further arms sales.
Indeed, the UK increased its arms sales to Saudi Arabia and other allies by 300 percent in 2019 compared to the previous year, according to the London-based Campaign Against Arms Trade, indicating the shift to a more arms industry-dependent economy.
The United Arab Emirates’ Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash declared Brexit as a “catalyst for free trade” between the two countries in February 2020. This followed an increase of UK-UAE trade from US$22 billion to US$37 billion between 2017 and 2020.
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Britain’s increased ties with various Gulf countries raised questions over whether Britain would seek a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with the GCC, which would be a huge boost for Downing Street.
An FTA with the entire GCC region would have been a challenging task. After all, no other major global market has been able to achieve this to date. The GCC crisis in 2017, after Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain severed ties with Qatar, also created a rift that made it difficult to achieve an FTA. Even China sought to negotiate one in 2016, which the crisis later obstructed.
GCC counties have now re-established ties after the Gulf crisis was “resolved” in January, creating a framework in which Britain may be able to pursue an FTA with the bloc.
However, GCC counties have now re-established ties after the Gulf crisis was “resolved” in January, creating a framework in which Britain may be able to pursue an FTA with the bloc.
The UK has already achieved an FTA with Turkey on December 31, which President Recep Tayyip Erdogan described as Turkey’s most important trade deal since its 1995 Customs Union with the EU. The FTA enables the continuation of trade agreements that London and Ankara enjoyed during Britain’s EU membership. British-Turkish trade could also further expand, particularly in the technology sector, said Chris Gaunt, Chairman of the British Chamber of Commerce in Turkey (BCCT), on January 15.
London and Ankara now have greater opportunities for political cooperation, such as stabilizing the Eastern Mediterranean crisis, particularly as Britain may want to maintain influence over shipping lines from the Suez Canal to Europe. It also creates further prospects for crisis collaboration such as Libya, where they could support peace negotiations through the Turkish-backed internationally recognized Government of National Accord (GNA).
In addition to Turkey, Britain also signed an FTA with Egypt on December 5, which grants British businesspeople preferential access to the Egyptian market. It ensured tariff-free trade on industrial products, and liberalization of trade in agriculture, agri-foods, and fisheries. As with Turkey, the lack of tariffs would therefore prevent extra costs on trade and enable future commercial deals.
Britain has therefore successfully boosted ties with traditional allies. And while there is the possibility of Britain having more diplomatic clout, that it could use to aid peace initiatives in certain conflicts, it has taken a more isolationist stance.
In Britain’s most recent budget announcement last November, Chancellor Rishi Sunak cut foreign policy spending to 0.5 percent from 0.7 percent over the next four years, which equals a decrease of around 4 billion pounds per year (approximately US$5.5 billion). Yet Sunak also pledged to boost London’s defense budget by £19 billion (US$ 26 billion) – the biggest increase since the Cold War.
The cutting of foreign aid reveals that the UK could take a lesser role in internationalist foreign policy, thus undermining its “global Britain” mantra.
Since the UK has offered a relatively small amount of aid to Yemen, despite fueling the Saudi Arabia-led conflict through military sales, the latest budget raised further criticisms that Britain would neglect human rights over economic interests. The cutting of foreign aid reveals that the UK could take a lesser role in internationalist foreign policy, thus undermining its “global Britain” mantra.
However, one consequential shift to Britain’s engagement in the Middle East was Joe Biden’s Presidential victory, which may challenge Johnson’s government due to its closeness to Trump. Under Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign and heavy sanctions on Iran, Washington drifted away from Europe’s position which supported upholding the 2015 nuclear deal. Johnson had also said he favored replacing the Iran deal with a “Trump deal” in January 2020.
As Britain was forced to choose between Europe and Washington’s position, it began drifting towards an Atlantic oriented Middle East policy. And as the UK risked losing out on EU trade, there was the prospect that London would depend more on trade deals with Washington, which may have consequently forced the UK into a stronger alignment with Trump’s foreign policy.
Trump’s unapologetic support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen also gave Britain more cover to continue supporting Riyadh militarily, despite further arms sales violating a lawsuit against the Conservative government’s backing of the Saudi kingdom.
Johnson warmed to Trump after he became Prime Minister, despite previously insulting him in 2015 during the former president’s visit to London. Johnson was clearly keen to appease any incumbent US president and will likely do so with Biden.
Biden has shown willingness to pursue a new Iran deal, and revise Washington’s support for Saudi Arabia’s war on Yemen. His presidency could also repair frictions between Washington and Brussels which Trump created, leaving Britain isolated between the US and EU.
Should President Biden successfully proceed with his pledges, Johnson would be pressured to follow suit, and his Conservative government would therefore adapt to the US’ position.
In their first phone call since Biden’s inauguration, the two leaders on January 23 discussed a potential new free trade deal, while the British prime minister tweeted he looks forward to “deepening the longstanding alliance” between the two countries.
Though London may breathe a temporary sigh of relief at Biden’s friendliness, his presidency could still force the UK to adapt. Particularly as Johnson eagerly followed Trump’s position on Yemen and praised his stance on Iran, while the UK built a greater economic dependency on its arms industry.