The United Kingdom’s upcoming general elections on December 12 may be the most crucial turning point for Britain’s Middle East foreign policy in decades, with a victory from either side having notable consequences for the region.
Currently the two frontrunners are incumbent Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party, and the opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party. Other parties like the Liberal Democrats, the Brexit Party, the Green Party, and the Scottish National Party (SNP) are contending for parliamentary seats and could join a coalition government should no party secure a majority.
Though the Conservatives are currently ahead in the polls, a Labour victory could deliver unprecedented reforms for Britain’s engagement with the Middle East.
Labour: A Radical Revision of Britain’s Middle East Relations?
Labour’s manifesto indicates a shift away from the so-called “New Labour” premiership of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. Corbyn’s Labour Party would seek to move away from Britain’s interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan highlighting their vast civilian casualties and creation of security threats, while reassessing relations with traditional UK allies.
Corbyn has criticized Britain’s support for Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen, which has contributed to“the world’s worst [manmade] humanitarian crisis.”
Corbyn has criticized Britain’s support, since March 2015, for Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen, which has contributed to what the United Nations called “the world’s worst [manmade] humanitarian crisis” more than a year ago. Now Labour promises to halt weapons sales to Saudi Arabia, which has deliberately targeted Yemen’s medical facilities, agricultural locations and civilian areas. It also vows more aid to humanitarian crises, with Yemen being a big focus.
A Channel 4 Dispatches documentary, analyzing Britain’s central role in supporting Saudi Arabia’s war, showed that if Britain halted military aid, Saudi Arabia’s campaign would end within a fortnight.
Corbyn implementing an arms embargo on Riyadh could therefore hasten peace efforts for war-torn Yemen. As Britain is Yemen’s “pen holder”* in the UN Security Council (UNSC), it may inspire more global efforts to help the country, and the UK could take a more assertive role in peace efforts.
Ending Britain’s £6.2 billion (US$8 billion) arms sales since 2015 could lessen this historic relationship. However, Riyadh may angrily withdraw its many investments in London in retaliation, which could further isolate Saudi Arabia internationally, thus eventually altering the region’s dynamics.
Corbyn seeks to challenge Britain’s relationship with Israel. And as with Saudi Arabia, Labour intends to end weapons sales to Israel and push it to end its blockade of the Gaza Strip.
Corbyn seeks to challenge Britain’s relationship with Israel, whose creation it facilitated with the 1917 Balfour Declaration. As with Saudi Arabia, Labour intends to end weapons sales to Israel and push it to end its blockade of the Gaza Strip. Corbyn has also previously promised to recognize Palestine, an unprecedented pledge for a key Western state, while supporting “a secure Israel alongside a secure and viable state of Palestine.”
Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has hinted that Israeli-British security alliance could end following a Corbyn victory, which would retrench Britain from another traditional ally.
While Corbyn has been an outspoken advocate for Palestinian rights, some Labour MPs are more sympathetic towards Israel. This could limit further challenges to the issue. As Britain is not a key weapons exporter to Israel compared to Saudi Arabia, delivering around £270 million (US$349 million) in the last three years, Corbyn’s position would not immediately halt Israel’s occupation of Palestine.
Corbyn’s designs could set a new precedent within Britain and Europe towards the Israel-Palestine conflict, precipitating gradual international changes, particularly after a European Union (EU) court ordered member states to label Israeli goods produced in the occupied West Bank with their territory of origin.
Yet if implemented, Corbyn’s designs could set a new precedent within Britain and Europe towards the Israel-Palestine conflict, precipitating gradual international changes, particularly after a European Union (EU) court in November ordered member states to label Israeli goods produced in the occupied West Bank with their territory of origin. Labour could further influence such changes should it hold a second EU referendum and lead Britain into remaining, while using its position in the UNSC to encourage a tougher stance on Israel.
Labour vows to “conduct a root-and-branch reform of our arms exports regime so ministers can never again turn a blind eye to British-made weapons being used to target innocent civilians,” which could lead to revising Britain’s relations with other human rights abusers in the region, particularly Egypt and the United Arab Emirates.
Jeremy Corbyn’s Middle Eastern views have attracted controversy. For instance, he was accused of ignoring Bashar al Assad’s war crimes in Syria, though the manifesto has promised to pursue justice for the bombing of hospitals in Syria, which Assad’s forces have largely perpetrated.
Indeed, Corbyn’s plans are more aimed at targeting violations of close British allies. It is likely that Corbyn would avoid intervention against other such countries like Syria and Iran and favour diplomacy, rather than justify their actions.
Conservatives: Hardening the Status Quo?
A UK Court of Appeal decision in June declared arms sales to Saudi Arabia “unlawful,” thus requiring a halt in further deals. Yet the Conservative Party has continued weapons sales. Liz Truss, international trade secretary, apologized in September for “accidentally” selling weapons to Saudi Arabia, despite the ban. The Conservative Party is still keen to continue military support to Riyadh, despite awareness of its complicity in Yemen’s war.
The Conservatives’ manifesto makes surprisingly little mention of the Middle East. With its key ambition to “Get Brexit Done,” a tightening of Britain’s relations with its wealthier Middle Eastern allies could occur.
The Conservatives’ manifesto makes surprisingly little mention of the Middle East, apart from praising Britain’s current foreign policy. With its key ambition to “Get Brexit Done,” a tightening of Britain’s relations with its wealthier Middle Eastern allies could occur. Should Johnson fail to secure a majority, he may seek a coalition with the Brexit Party, which could lead to a harder Brexit politics.
Since the 2016 EU referendum, Britain’s trade with Saudi Arabia has increased, particularly after Mohammad bin Salman visited London in March 2018, pursuing trade deals worth £65 billion (US$84 billion). Other Saudi ministers showed interest in investing in post-Brexit Britain. The UAE and Israel have also secured greater British trade since 2016.
Yet an increased dependency on such trade could lead to Britain tolerating Saudi Arabia’s actions in Yemen further, as well as Israel’s actions in the occupied Palestinian areas, granting them both further impunity. Johnson has also supported banning public boycotts of foreign states, which includes Israel. Johnson distancing Britain from the EU could undermine European efforts to support international law in the occupied West Bank.
The Conservatives claim to “maintain support for a two-state solution” in Israel and Palestine, and have shown “serious concern” for increased Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank and other policies. Yet Britain has made few tangible efforts to support a Palestinian state. Banning boycotts could repress civil society and political efforts to support a Palestinian state.
The Conservatives’ pledge to “champion freedom of expression and tolerance, both in the UK and overseas,” has shown little indication of addressing its current allies’ abuses.
The Conservatives’ pledge to “champion freedom of expression and tolerance, both in the UK and overseas,” has shown little indication of addressing its current allies’ abuses. Therefore, repression in states including the UAE, Egypt, and Bahrain, all of which human rights organizations have condemned for breaching freedom of expression and lacking tolerance, would remain.
Johnson also supports Donald Trump’s stance on Iran, calling the 2015 nuclear agreement a “bad deal,” and labelling Trump “a brilliant negotiator,” capable of achieving a better deal. Johnson is evidently ready to follow Trump’s lead on Iran, which is becoming more and more antagonizing under his maximum pressure campaign. With the UK’s previous leader Theresa May increasing Britain’s military presence in the Gulf to “counter” Iran, Johnson could pursue additional efforts to isolate Iran rather than seek de-escalation and peace.