Select Committee on Foreign Affairs Eighth Report

8  British Diplomacy and the Region

210. Earlier chapters in this Report have focused on the Government's policies towards particular countries and issues in the Middle East. There are, however, clear relationships between these issues. This section therefore considers the Government's approach to the Middle East as a region. It looks both at its attempts to create a narrative of the dynamic within the region as well as its wider strategic objectives.

The 'Arc of Extremism'

211. In recent years, the Government has often articulated a narrative tying together various developments in the Middle East. In a highly significant speech in August 2006, the then Prime Minister argued:

What is happening today out in the Middle East […] and beyond is an elemental struggle about the values that will shape our future. It is in part a struggle between what I will call Reactionary Islam and Moderate, Mainstream Islam. But its implications go far wider. We are fighting a war, but not just against terrorism but about how the world should govern itself in the early 21st century, about global values.

He stated his belief that "Reactionary Islam" [the capitalised letters are his] was responsible for backward steps in the Occupied Palestinian Territories and Lebanon, as well as in Iraq. He touched on what he believed to be their motives:

They hope that the arc of extremism that now stretches across the region, will sweep away the fledgling but faltering steps Modern Islam wants to take into the future.

The then Prime Minister argued:

From now on, we need a whole strategy for the Middle East. If we are faced with an arc of extremism, we need a corresponding arc of moderation and reconciliation. Each part is linked. Progress between Israel and Palestine affects Iraq. Progress in Iraq affects democracy in the region. Progress for Moderate, Mainstream Islam anywhere puts Reactionary Islam on the defensive everywhere. But none of it happens unless in each individual part the necessary energy and commitment is displayed not fitfully, but continuously.[348]

212. The then Prime Minister's contention that there is an 'arc of extremism' in the Middle East is controversial. We asked a number of our witnesses about this phrase. Dr Rosemary Hollis argued that it "does not take you very far." Nomi Bar-Yaacov claimed that "the lack of distinction" was "extremely unhelpful." She added that it was "important to scrutinise separately every group that commits violent acts."[349] Dr Howells' remarks on the phrase deployed by his own Prime Minister were surprisingly frank:

I think it is unhelpful. It neither defines the problem nor does it help us come up with solutions. I have all kinds of meetings in this country and elsewhere as part of our Muslim outreach programme, and there is a great deal of resentment about the generalisations that we tend to indulge in.[350]

213. The issue of whether we can group together and collectively deal with groups in different parts of the Middle East by combating an 'arc of extremism' is related to the debate over the 'war on terror'. In our 2006 Report, we accepted that the phrase 'war against terrorism' was an inappropriate one, as it did not adequately describe what has become a multi-faceted and complex international effort.[351] In April 2007, the then Secretary of State for International Development announced that the Government would no longer use the phrase 'war on terror'. He argued that "this isn't us against one organised enemy with a clear identity and a coherent set of objectives". He went on to suggest that by letting various oppositional groups "feel part of something bigger, we give them strength."[352] This argument could equally apply to the phrase 'arc of extremism'.

214. The notion of an 'arc of extremism' is also related to the idea that there is a 'Shi'a crescent' spreading across the Middle East. King Abdullah of Jordan first used this term in 2005, arguing that power of the Shi'a community stretched from Iran to Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon. It threatened the stability of Gulf States and posed a challenge to the US. Dr Ali Ansari told us that the comments of some Arab leaders are "really quite astonishing." He argued that "it does not make policy easy. It basically simplifies us into making more mistakes." Professor Anoush Ehteshami told us that King Abdullah's remarks revealed a "concern" that, with the advent of democracy in Iraq, "the Shi'a issue is now an Arab issue." [353]

215. In its written evidence, the British Council warned that language and rhetoric such as "radicalisation" and "extremism" can be "seen as reviving colonial approaches and dividing the region on the basis of religious sects".[354]

216. We conclude that the use by Ministers of phrases such as 'war on terror' and 'arc of extremism' is unhelpful and that such oversimplifications may lead to dangerous policy implications. We agree with the Minister for the Middle East that these phrases cause unnecessary resentment. We recommend that the Government should not use this or similar language in future.

The Middle East and the Government's International Priorities

217. In 2003, the FCO published a White Paper, Active Diplomacy for a Changing World: the UK's International Priorities. An updated edition was published in 2006. The purpose of the White Paper is to set out current policy challenges and what the Government should do to meet them.[355] Ten international strategic priorities have been set to guide the Government's engagement with the rest of the world over the next five or ten years. These are:

  • making the world safer from global terrorism and weapons of mass destruction;
  • reducing the harm to the UK from international crime, including drug trafficking, people smuggling and money laundering;
  • preventing and resolving conflict through a strong international system;
  • building an effective and globally competitive EU in a secure neighbourhood;
  • supporting the UK economy and business through an open and expanding global economy, science and innovation and secure energy supplies;
  • achieving climate security by promoting a faster transition to a sustainable, low carbon global economy;
  • promoting sustainable development and poverty reduction underpinned by human rights, democracy, good governance and protection of the environment;
  • managing migration and combating illegal immigration;
  • delivering high-quality support for British nationals abroad, in normal times and in crises;
  • ensuring the security and good governance of the UK's Overseas Territories.[356]

A number of these priorities are clearly relevant to the Middle East. The FCO's Public Service Agreement (PSA) targets from the 2004 Comprehensive Spending Review are roughly based around these priorities. These targets are outcome-focused. Of particular interest are PSA 2 (Terrorism), PSA 3 (Conflict Prevention) and PSA 7 (Islamic Countries). In this section, we focus on the first two of these. We consider the FCO's engagement with the Islamic world in the section below.

218. The overall Conflict Prevention target reads as follows:

By 2007/08, improved effectiveness of UK and international support for conflict prevention, through addressing long term structural causes of conflict, managing regional and national tension and violence, and supporting post-conflict reconstruction, where the UK can make a significant contribution, in particular Africa, Asia, the Balkans and the Middle East. This target is shared with Department for International Development (DfID) and Ministry of Defence (MoD).

Based on 12 indicators looking at regions and themes around the world, the FCO 2006-07 Departmental Report concludes that between 1 April 2006 and 31 March 2007, it was "broadly on course" to meet this target, with some "minor slippage".[357]

219. The detail of the 12 indicators identifies the cause of this "minor slippage": Iraq and the Middle East Peace Process. Both are identified as having experienced "major slippage" and were judged as not on course to meet their target.[358] Given the severe deterioration in security in both the Occupied Palestinian Territories and Iraq highlighted in this Report, there may be a case for arguing that "major slippage" in these two arenas ought to weigh more heavily in the FCO's consideration of whether it is meeting its Conflict Prevention target.

220. The FCO has a PSA target on terrorism. The broad target is to "reduce the risk from international terrorism so that UK citizens can go about their business freely and with confidence". Again, the FCO judges that it is "on course" to meet this target. This assessment is generated from six indicators, for instance, "raised awareness of the scale and nature of the terrorist threat."[359] The six indicators consider important issues, but there is no mention of the role that conflicts in the Middle East might play in aiding or hindering the fight against international terrorism. In our final Report on Foreign Policy Aspects of the War against Terrorism, we concluded that the situation in Iraq had provided both "a powerful source of propaganda" for extremists and "a crucial training ground for international terrorists associated with al Qaeda".[360] As with Conflict Prevention, there is a strong case that the Government's response to the situations in Iraq, Lebanon and the Palestinian Territories should be central to a consideration of whether the FCO's policies have indeed reduced the risk from international terrorism.

221. The Government is currently negotiating new PSA targets that will be set across the whole of Government rather than on a Department by Department basis.[361] These will replace the targets established under the 2004 Comprehensive Spending Review. When the Permanent Under-Secretary at the FCO, Sir Peter Ricketts, gave evidence to the Committee in June 2007, he told us that the FCO would have ten Departmental strategic priorities and "a much smaller number of PSA targets."[362] The FCO will lead the Government's work on the conflict prevention PSA.[363] Sir Peter told the Committee that conflict prevention was "one of the most difficult areas" in which to get "sensible performance measures" for the work of the FCO and other Departments.[364] We will consider the nature of Public Service Agreements in greater depth in our Report on the FCO's Annual Report 2006-07 later this year.

222. We conclude that, when measuring its performance on conflict prevention and combating global terrorism, the Government should pay closer attention to the impact of its foreign policy in the Middle East than it has done under the 2004 Public Service Agreement targets. We recommend that the indicators for the 2007 Public Service Agreement target on Conflict Prevention reflect the impact of conflicts in the Middle East, including Iraq, the Occupied Palestinian Territories and Lebanon, on broader global security.


223. The debate around the 'arc of extremism' is linked to a wider discussion regarding engagement with Islamist movements. In this Report, we have identified a number of such movements across the Middle East. The Muslim Brotherhood is strong in Egypt, and Hamas and Hezbollah cannot be ignored in the Occupied Palestinian Territories and Lebanon respectively. Many of Iraq's political parties are established along sectarian or confessional lines, and the religious nature of the Islamic Republic of Iran is evident in the state's name.

224. In its White Paper, Active Diplomacy for a Changing World: the UK's International Priorities, the FCO identified the need to engage with Islamic theological issues "in partnership with Muslim governments, leaders, scholars and others" in order to prevent radicalisation and terrorist recruitment.[365] The FCO's 2004 PSA target on "Islamic countries" reads:

To increase understanding of, and engagement with, Islamic countries and communities and to work with them to promote peaceful political, economic and social reform.

Under this broad target are eight indicators, ranging from "greater political pluralism in Islamic countries as a result of UK contribution" to "the fostering and promotion of a moderate version of Islam". In its self-assessment, the FCO believes it is "on course" to meet its overall target. The FCO documents a range of conferences held and reforms carried out in countries such as Morocco and Turkey - this is to be welcomed. However, in its two pages on this issue, there is no mention of the impact of the situation in Iraq or the refusal to engage with Hamas or Hezbollah in delivering this PSA target. Lebanon and Saudi Arabia are only mentioned peripherally.[366] A more comprehensive approach is required to tackle these key issues.

225. The Government funds projects worth £8.5 million a year under the "Engaging with the Islamic World Programme", which is part of the Global Opportunities Fund. These projects are carried out through non-governmental organisations or multilateral bodies. It envisages outcomes including "reduced extremism and conflict in the Islamic world" and "strengthening of civil society." Priority countries include Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the Occupied Palestinian Territories.[367]

226. The Government's reputation in the Middle East is an important factor in determining its ability to engage with the Islamic world. This has been influenced by its position on Iraq, Israel-Palestine, the Lebanon war and relations with Iran. Dr Rosemary Hollis told the Committee about the way the Government is viewed in the region:

On the Arab side, I personally found much more hostility than I ever used to have to endure, just by virtue of being British. Although I know that there is no question but that the Governments in the region will deal with visiting Members of Parliament and official representatives of Her Majesty's Government with absolute protocol and politeness, and will urge the British to understand their point of view and tailor policy to it, in civil society there is a level of contempt for the British now.

She further argued that the notion that British foreign policy in the region is driven by values is considered by Arab populations to be "nonsense." She concluded by arguing that "repairing Britain's image in the region" would take some time.[368]

227. We asked Dr Peter Gooderham a question along the same lines, with particular reference to the Israel-Palestine dispute. He claimed that "we are viewed by both the Palestinians and the Israelis as a country with influence" and that "by our actions and by our words, we have a good track record in that respect."[369] Dr Howells argued that, in the region, "there is a great deal of respect for Britain's position" over Lebanon.[370] However, in our earlier evidence session on Lebanon, he admitted to the Committee that the Government's position "probably generated a lot of hostility" amongst Arab populations.[371]

228. The new Minister of State at the FCO, Lord Mark Malloch Brown, also made comments about the Government's reputation at the time of the Lebanon war, when he was Deputy Secretary-General of the UN. He told the Financial Times that, following the Iraq war, the UK carried with it "a particular set of baggage in the Middle East" and that it should not have attempted to take the lead on Lebanon.[372] In its written submission to the Committee, the British Council presented its emphatic view of the UK's reputation in the region:

Perceptions of the UK are heavily and negatively influenced by UK foreign policy involvement and have led to apprehension and scepticism on the part of some British Council partners. There is a clear decrease in trust and understanding between people in the region and the UK, even though a distinction is usually made between UK foreign policy and wider UK society.[373]

229. In its written submission to the Committee, the Church of England argued that "Islamist groups will continue to provide the foundation of political opposition for the foreseeable future. They are likely to be the immediate beneficiaries of any political reform." It suggested that the Government should engage with these Islamist groups constructively, in particular with their reformist wings, whilst at the same time pressing for democratic political reform in the Middle East.[374] However, the British Council warned us that there appears to be "donor fatigue" around support aimed at promoting good governance, democratisation and reform because, in part, of the suspicion in which such initiatives are held by wider society.[375] In Lebanon, we heard from the Westminster Foundation for Democracy about the work that they are doing to promote political reform in the country. We believe that it is vital to continue with this work across the whole of the Middle East.

230. We conclude that the FCO should continue to have a Departmental objective on relations with the Islamic World. This should, however, give sufficient weight to the impact of British policy in Iraq, Lebanon and the Occupied Palestinian Territories. We are concerned that the damage done to the Government's reputation in the Arab and Islamic world may affect its ability to influence the political situation in the Middle East. We recommend that, in its response to this Report, the Government set out what action it is taking to improve its influence and reputation in the Arab and Islamic world.


231. This Report has touched on the need for the Government to adopt a holistic approach to the Middle East, whilst at the same time acknowledging the diversity in the political environment across the region. The Government also needs to manage expectations of what is possible, what is practical and what is desirable in the Middle East.

232. The Government's White Paper and Policy Review are pitched at a general level - they afford little opportunity for the FCO to set out its diplomatic strategy towards the Middle East. In March 2007, Lord Triesman launched the Government's public strategy paper with regard to its relationship with Latin America to 2020.[376] Given the gravity of the situation in the Middle East today, and the active and sometimes controversial role that the Government plays in the region, we believe a similar approach should be taken here.

233. We recommend that the Government publish a public strategy paper on its relationship with the Middle East. This paper should set measurable targets for progress, and consider the political situation in different countries as well as addressing important cross-cutting themes such as democratisation, good governance and the rule of law. We believe that such an approach will help ensure the Government continues with a holistic approach to the region, improve the public's confidence in the Government's approach to the Middle East, and increase the opportunity for effective scrutiny of its engagement in this area of multiple crises.

348   "Speech to the Los Angeles World Affairs Council", 1 August 2006, Back

349   Q 75 Back

350   Q 200 Back

351   Foreign Affairs Committee, Fourth Report of Session 2005-06, Foreign Policy Aspects of the War against Terrorism, HC 573, para 3 Back

352   "Benn criticises 'war on terror'", BBC News, 16 April 2007, Back

353   Q 125 Back

354   Ev 130 Back

355   Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Active Diplomacy for a Changing World: The UK's International Priorities, CM 6762, March 2006 Back

356 Back

357   Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Departmental Report 1 April 2006-31 March 2007, May 2007, CM 7099, p 153 Back

358   Ibid, p 154 Back

359   Ibid, p 152 Back

360   Foreign Affairs Committee, Fourth Report of Session 2005-06, Foreign Policy Aspects of the War against Terrorism, HC 573, para 21 Back

361   "The PSA Framework in CSR 2007", 17 October 2006, Back

362   Oral evidence taken before the Committee on the Foreign and Commonwealth Office Annual Report 2006-07, 26 June 2007, HC 795-i (2006-07), Q 31 Back

363   Ibid, Q 25 Back

364   Ibid, Q 27 Back

365   Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Active Diplomacy for a Changing World: The UK's International Priorities, CM 6762, March 2006, p 52 Back

366   Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Departmental Report 1 April 2006-31 March 2007, May 2007, CM 7099, pp 162-164 Back

367   Engaging with the Islamic World Programme", Back

368   Q 66 Back

369   Q 13 Back

370   Q 149 Back

371   Oral evidence taken before the Foreign Affairs Committee on 13 September 2006, HC 1583-i (2006-07), Q 11 Back

372   "Transcript: Interview with Mark Malloch Brown", Financial Times, 1 August 2006, Back

373   Ev 130 Back

374   Ev 82, para 7 Back

375   Ev 130 Back

376   Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Latin America to 2020: A UK Public Strategy Paper, March 2007, Back

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