Sun, May 07, 2017 - Page 7 News List

UK’s Middle East policy needs rethink: report

A British House of Lords report calls for fresh alliances to be forged in the region and criticizes London’s approach to Syria, the Arab Spring and arms sales to Saudi Arabia, while urging the government to develop policy independently from the US in the face of a new reality

By Patrick Wintour  /  The Guardian

Illustration: Louise Ting

The UK must fundamentally rethink its approach to the Middle East and potentially distance itself from the “mercurial and unpredictable” leadership of US President Donald Trump, a major report has concluded.

Former British Cabinet ministers, senior foreign policy advisers and diplomats said the British Foreign Office should not rely too heavily on the US president and urged the UK to completely redraw its approach to the region.

Calling on Britain to forge new alliances in the Persian Gulf region, the House of Lords’ international relations select committee described Britain’s policy in Syria as being in “confusion and disarray” and suggested influence with Iran and Saudi Arabia had dwindled.

The report concluded that British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson should support the Iran nuclear deal — loathed by Trump’s administration — and seriously consider recognizing Palestine as a state in order to boost the Middle East peace process.

“The mercurial and unpredictable nature of policymaking by President Trump has made it challenging for the UK government to influence US foreign policy so far, a challenge that is not likely to ease,” the committee said.

The group is chaired by the former Cabinet minister Lord Howell of the Conservative Party and includes former foreign policy advisers to former British prime ministers William Hague and Gordon Brown, former British ambassador to the UN Lord Hannay and former British secretary of defense Lord Reid of the Labour Party.

“In a world less automatically dominated by the US underpinning security in the region, it is no longer right to have a stance at every stage of ‘if we just get on with the US everything will be alright,’” Howell said.

The US is “the wild card,” he said. “We really have to think for ourselves.”

“The Middle East has changed and UK policy in the region must respond to that. As the UK prepares to leave the EU and we have a new and uncertain American policy in the region, we cannot assume our strategies of the past will suffice,” Howell said. “We need a new UK Middle East strategy and set of policies that reflect the new reality in the region. We can no longer assume America will set the tone for the west’s relationship with the Middle East and the UK must give serious thought to how our own approach will need to change.”

“From inward investment to the UK, the impact of refugees from the region and our continuing reliance on gas and oil exports, our interests will continue to be intertwined with those of the region and the government must ensure it has the right plan for our relationship with it,” he said.

The committee called for “a new mindset in policy circles” that questions the assumptions that have guided UK policy for the past century, including the power of external, rather than internal, actors to dominate the region.

The findings will be seen as a warning to the foreign secretary, who has devoted considerable personal energy to the Middle East and set great store by his relationship with Trump’s administration.

The committee said the UK’s response to the Arab Spring had been “muddled,” sometimes supporting hereditary authoritarian family rulers, at other times siding with revolutionary movements fighting the old regimes.

The government has been over-reliant on Saudi Arabia’s assurances about how it is using UK arms in the war in Yemen, the report said, adding that this reliance “is not an adequate way of implementing UK obligations under the arms trade treaty.”

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