The Middle East: Time for New Realism Contents

Summary of conclusions and recommendations

Profound disorder of the new Middle East

1.Traditional patterns of hierarchy and power have been challenged throughout the Middle East, leaving a turbulent scene which has failed to meet the expectations and hopes of the Arab spring but is suffering from the aftershocks from that political upheaval. (Paragraph 29)

2.The new Middle East is likely to remain unstable and chaotic with its future evolution uncertain. Surveying the immense challenges of the region, while it is clear that they can be in some degree influenced, the prospect for resolving them are remote. (Paragraph 30)

3.The UK needs a renewed approach to the region, one more responsive to the shifts and changes, which questions the assumptions that have guided British policy for the last century. As the UK enters a new post-EU era, it is timely for the UK to review some long-standing premises and attitudes. (Paragraph 34)

4.The strategic importance of the Middle East region to the West, traditionally centred, in the earlier part of the century, around oil and trade routes to India and the Orient, has now given way to new and different concerns, more connected with global security threats, including from migration, and the contagions of terrorism and sectarian violence. (Paragraph 35)

5.Overall, the new Middle East requires a new mind-set in policy circles. First, it should no longer be seen as an area to exert power in the name of traditional interests. Second, it is not an area where the dependence on American predominance can any longer be assumed. Third, it is no longer a region of purely Western concern. The concerns are global; Russia has returned to the region and China’s involvement is growing. (Paragraph 36)

6.In this continuing period of turmoil and upheaval, the UK can do little to shape the region on its own. British policy, ideally, must still be to foster and pursue its national interests, but also to contain the threat of state conflict, and encourage stability in the region while supporting democratic institutions where they emerge. We consider, in this report, what such a policy might entail, and how to give it shape and momentum. (Paragraph 37)

Current policy and current illusions

7.The risks stemming from the Middle East to our own commercial interests and security necessitate the UK’s continued engagement. The UK does not have the luxury, as the US does, of reducing its exposure to, or engagement with, this neighbouring region. (Paragraph 49)

8.The UK should be active in insisting on the human rights obligations of countries in the MENA region to protect the rights of Christians and other minorities. (Paragraph 50)

9.The UK has been muddled in its response to the Arab Spring. In the Gulf states, it has continued to favour the stability offered by hereditary family rulers, and undergirded a system of authoritarianism. By contrast, in Egypt and in Syria, British policy has, at times, sided with the revolutionary movements against the old regimes. (Paragraph 59)

10.As political authority is in turmoil in the Middle East, the UK has a practical interest in the stability of key states with whom the UK has shared interests, including counter-terrorism and the security of oil supplies through the Gulf. (Paragraph 60)

11.Whether the UK’s engagement has been in the best interests of those countries depends on a fine judgement of whether it is the conservation of power, or reform, or a mixture of both, which provides the most stability and least dangerous future. (Paragraph 61)

12.We endorse the military action by the US as justified and proportionate given that the Syrian regime has reneged on its obligations under the Chemical Weapons Convention, and given the evident Russian determination to block any action in the UN Security Council. (Paragraph 67)

13.British confusion and disarray in Syria is a reflection of the contradictions in international policy on President Bashar al-Assad, which must be rethought. The objective of displacing Assad, as a prerequisite of any settlement, with the current means and policy, has proved unachievable. Despite the chemical attack and the recent escalation of military conflict Assad, with Russian support, remains in power. (Paragraph 68)

14.There are no good options available in Syria but the recent chemical attack, the urgency of the humanitarian crisis, with the potential to destabilise the EU and countries of the Middle East with refugees, requires the UK, and international community, to redouble its efforts to achieve a negotiated solution. (Paragraph 69)

15.The UK’s sales of arms, which are being used against civilians in Yemen, are generating a considerable degree of public concern. The UK’s position of relying on assurances by the Saudis and Saudi-led review processes is not an adequate way of implementing the obligations for a risk-based assessment set out in the Arms Trade Treaty. (Paragraph 86)

16.We recognise the importance of arms sales to the UK economy and the Gulf. Arms sales, however, must take place with regard for international obligations. (Paragraph 87)

17.The Government must demonstrate that its private diplomacy is working. If not, it should speak out clearly at the UN, within the Human Rights Council, condemning violations, intentional or not, in clear terms. Finally, as a last resort, we recommend that the UK should send a political signal, for instance, by suspending some key export licences, where there is a risk that they could be used in violation of international humanitarian law in Yemen. (Paragraph 88)

18.More broadly, UK sales of arms to countries of the region that might use those arms to commit human rights violations is a troubling aspect of British policy. After Brexit, as the Government seeks to deepen its security and trade relations with the Gulf states, the UK’s dependence on arms exports is likely to increase as will the consequences of those sales. The sharpness of these dilemmas will increase pressures for a reconsideration of the way the UK applies its own export guidelines. (Paragraph 89)

19.As part of its post-Brexit foreign policy, the Government should commit to reviewing how Government departments and ministers meet the criteria for arms exports. Decision-making procedures must be more transparent and demonstrate unequivocal adherence to international law. Such a review would send a clear political signal that UK foreign policy under the new Government will not be business as usual. (Paragraph 90)

20.The significance of Brexit on the Middle East is, on balance, less than elsewhere. Policy in the region relies on bilateral relationships and security commitments. Nevertheless, the UK will need to work closely with the main European powers in order to craft a policy that covers the entire region, securing UK access to countries where it is not historically represented and continued cooperation with EU development instruments. (Paragraph 104)

21.After Brexit, ensuring that the UK has strong bilateral relations with key European partners will be critical. France, in particular, as one of Europe’s most effective diplomatic and military powers, and a country with a historic role in the region, is likely to be the UK’s most important partner in the MENA. (Paragraph 105)

22.In the sphere of development policy, both UK and EU policy could be diminished by Brexit: the EU’s large aid budget and global reach provides the UK with economies of scale, and European Commission programmes will be bereft of one of its largest contributors. There is a mutual benefit to close cooperation. We urge the UK Government to ensure that arrangements are put in place to ensure that the UK and EU continue to work closely on development policy in the MENA. (Paragraph 106)

Social change, communications and demography

23.The trend whereby ambassadors in post have active Twitter feeds and a social media presence is to be encouraged. There are two risks: that ambassadors can perhaps act too autonomously or that they are not sufficiently active. We recommend that all ambassadors should be offered guidance in advance of taking up a post, on how they can most effectively make use of social media. (Paragraph 122)

24.The internet provides an abundance of information, but much of it of dubious provenance and accuracy. In an era of “fake news”, reliable and timely information is essential. Traditional sources of reliable news, such as the BBC World Service, have a critical role to play and should therefore continue to be strongly supported. In addition, how UK ambassadors can counter fake news should form part of the training. (Paragraph 123)

25.There is both an opportunity and a demand for the UK to revitalise its diplomacy amongst young people of the region. Many young people desire and welcome a relationship with the UK that engages with British culture, not just politics. (Paragraph 132)

26.In the longer run, it is through support for the expansion of educational opportunities that outside powers, especially the UK, may have an effective stabilising role in the region. (Paragraph 133)

27.The UK should continue to welcome and encourage young people from the MENA to study in the UK, increasing our influence amongst future leaders and decision makers, and fostering a generation that could be a positive force for change. (Paragraph 134)

28.There is a risk that the current anti-immigration discourse and tightening visa controls could damage the UK’s influence and standing in the region. The Government should redouble its efforts to communicate clearly that the UK is open to foreign students, and to facilitate visa access. It is in the UK’s national interest to ensure that foreign higher education students are encouraged and attracted to study in the UK. (Paragraph 135)

29.As a first constructive step, the UK Government should cease to treat higher education students, for public policy purposes, as economic migrants, and should take them out of net migration calculations. (Paragraph 136)

External powers

30.The new US administration has the potential to destabilise further the region. On seeking a two-state solution and relations with Iran, the US President has taken positions that are unconstructive and could even escalate conflict. (Paragraph 151)

31.The mercurial and unpredictable nature of policy-making 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. (Paragraph 152)

32.The scope of Russia’s ambitions in the Middle East remains unclear. As a result, the UK’s engagement with Russia, while desirable, must continue to be cautious. Where it is possible to secure closer cooperation with Russia on specific objectives in the region, including stability in Syria and Libya, counter-terrorism, making progress on the Israeli-Palestinian dispute and supporting the Iran nuclear deal, this should be pursued. (Paragraph 161)

33.The Middle East is not, in itself, a national security priority for the Russians, unlike Ukraine and the European neighbourhood. Russia has been able both to foment and to exploit the turbulence of the Middle East to gain considerable authority and leverage, which it is likely to wish to trade off in the global arena. (Paragraph 162)

34.The UK should pursue a transactional approach with Russia in the Middle East, willing to cooperate on specific objectives, but this should not be at the expense of compromising on Ukraine or Crimea. (Paragraph 163)

35.The UK finds itself sharing interests—open markets, political stability and security of energy supplies—with China. The One Belt/One Road Initiative is a significant opportunity for UK commercial interests, which it should support. We find the UK Government prepared to exploit the possible opportunities. (Paragraph 173)

36.If the US retreats in its support for the international rules-based order and in its security commitments to the Middle East, China’s economic interests may necessitate deeper political engagement. (Paragraph 174)

37.There is no indication that the rise of China in the Middle East will be threatening to British interests. China is likely to want to manage its rise without clashing with any other external power, balancing regional relationships, without committing to onerous security burdens, and acting through multilateral institutions. There should therefore be scope for closer cooperation between the UK and China. (Paragraph 175)

38.The rules-based international order is a pivotal part of the UK’s foreign policy. As state power declines, the UK can only wield power via other alliances and international institutions, new and old. (Paragraph 185)

39.As a member of NATO, the G-7, the G-20, UNSC and the Commonwealth (and for the moment the EU), Britain has a seat at virtually every international table of consequence. The UK must wield its diverse range of memberships in the world’s most influential organisations effectively. It should also work closely with its leading European allies, in particular France and Germany, on issues in the Middle East. (Paragraph 186)

40.Over the past 100 years, Britain and France have often been at loggerheads in the Middle East behaving as rivals even when they were allies elsewhere in the world. The time for that is past. The right objective in future should be for the two countries to work together and thus to maximise their influence in a region of great importance to both of them. (Paragraph 187)

41.The UK should support UN efforts at mediation in Yemen, Libya and Syria in particular urging Saudi Arabia to demonstrate its constructive cooperation with the peace process in Yemen. The resources of the international community will be critical to rebuild Yemen, Libya and Syria. (Paragraph 188)

Evolution of Middle East states

42.The Saudi-Iranian rivalry is mostly, but not exclusively, political in nature. A sectarian dimension helps fuel the conflict and domestic factors contribute heavily. Such tensions are likely to endure and could even increase as the Iran nuclear deal nears the end of its term and both countries compete on the international oil market. The interests of the international community are ill-served by this rivalry. (Paragraph 193)

43.Power amongst states in the region is in flux and the UK cannot rely merely on its traditional allies. The UK will have to be more transactional and adroit in its partnerships in the region. Despite concerns about their own internal political direction, the UK will have to maintain productive working relationships with principal regional countries. (Paragraph 199)

44.It is not in the UK’s interest, nor in that of its principal allies, that the Saudi-Iranian rivalry should continue to spread geographically and to intensify. A determined effort should be made to develop a modus vivendi between these important Middle East states, perhaps in a wider regional framework. (Paragraph 200)

45.It is in the UK’s interests to pursue a better relationship with Iran, and we recommend that this should be a key priority for the UK. More cooperative political and economic engagement will also depend on Iran ceasing its campaign of harassment against British-Iran dual nationals, in particular in the case of Mrs Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe. (Paragraph 205)

46.The Trump administration is unlikely to try to destroy the Iran deal, but the administration is also unlikely to take any steps to facilitate more effective sanctions relief to Iran. This will be a grave impediment to the sustainability of the Iran nuclear deal and it will mean that Iran’s ongoing frustration with opening Western markets will continue. A strategic opportunity will be lost as Iran looks to non-Western powers, like China and Russia, which will be able to develop faster and more extensive trade relations, opening new channels for financing trade and investment. (Paragraph 216)

47.Relations between Iran and the West, and the future of the Iran nuclear deal, are imperilled by the political context in 2017: a hostile US administration; impending elections in Iran; and European supporters of the deal such as France and the UK consumed by their own internal political debates. (Paragraph 217)

48.The interests of the UK Government are clear. The UK should continue to support the Iran nuclear deal, whether or not it is supported by the US. It will have to work closely with its European partners, and Russia and China, to ensure the sustainability of the deal. The UK must also be more transparent and vocal in its support, especially within the UNSC. (Paragraph 218)

49.There is sufficient international support to ensure that the Trump administration will not be able to resurrect the international coalition to rebuild sanctions or impose new ones on Iran. (Paragraph 219)

50.Nevertheless, US sanctions remain a serious impediment to opening up the banking sector, and attracting new finance and investment into Iran. The UK, alongside its European partners, should consider active measures to ease banking regulations and to open up new sources of finance and investment to Iran. This policy would make it more attractive for Iran to persevere with the JCPOA, however unhelpful US actions may be. (Paragraph 220)

51.The international community is limited in its capacity to respond to Iranian provocation in the region, but the approach by the US has a dangerous escalatory logic. (Paragraph 228)

52.We recommend that the external parties to the Iran nuclear agreement should find a way to discuss amongst themselves any hostile foreign policy actions by Iran in order to form a united and proportionate international position on Iranian actions. (Paragraph 229)

53.A proportionate and effective response to Iranian provocation will include the parties to the Iran nuclear agreement agreeing their collective position, exerting private diplomacy with the Iranians, setting clear red lines and agreeing on the diplomatic and financial measures to respond to Iranian actions. It will also have to recognise that Iran has legitimate security interests and needs to be recognised as having a role as a regional power. (Paragraph 230)

54.The UK has so far demonstrated little capacity to influence the position of the US bilaterally, and must now act closely with European allies in order to do so. (Paragraph 231)

55.Action should be taken by the parties to the Iran nuclear deal to consider what will follow it. These will have to include robust monitoring mechanisms and sufficient inducements to make it attractive to Iran. (Paragraph 237)

56.The terms of the Iran nuclear deal could be broadened into an international standard, making Iran less of a special case. We urge the UK Government to extend some energetic diplomacy to secure backing amongst the P5 of the UN Security Council to explore such ideas. (Paragraph 238)

57.The UK has a crucial interest in maintaining a clear-eyed but close relationship with the Gulf monarchies. As political authority collapses in many Middle East countries, the UK needs a good working relationship with the remaining stable countries. We also recognise the shared interests: defence sales, non-defence commercial interests and trade, the fight against terrorism, and security of energy supply throughout the Gulf. (Paragraph 247)

58.Nevertheless, despite some minor improvements, many countries of the region continue to remain repressive. On key issues of public and parliamentary concern, the Government has not been able to demonstrate that private diplomacy has been able to influence the direction of policy. (Paragraph 248)

59.The UK has to go to considerably further lengths to improve transparency and accountability around its relationships in the Gulf. The UK has not taken the opportunity to set out a clear assessment of its objectives in the region, to which it can be held to account. (Paragraph 249)

60.A negotiated two-state outcome remains the only way to achieve an enduring peace that meets Israeli security needs and Palestinian aspirations for statehood and sovereignty, ends the occupation that began in 1967, and resolves all permanent status issues. We condemn the continuing Israeli policy of the expansion of settlements as illegal and an impediment to peace. (Paragraph 266)

61.On its current trajectory, the Israeli-Palestinian dispute is on the verge of moving into a phase where the two-state solution becomes an impossibility and is considered no longer viable by either side. The consequences would be grave for the region. The resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute must remain high amongst British foreign policy priorities. The Government should be more forthright in stating its views on these issues despite the views of the US administration. (Paragraph 267)

62.The aim at this juncture is to ensure that the climate for diplomacy does not degrade any further. (Paragraph 268)

63.In the absence of US leadership, it is time for the Europeans to play a more active role. The UK should support European diplomacy, including the French-led initiative. The International Conference intends to meet again at the end of 2017 and the UK should undertake to support it meaningfully, both politically and financially. It is also an opportunity to bring moderate states of the region on board to build a broad coalition of international support. (Paragraph 269)

64.The balance of power in the delivery of peace lies with Israel. If Israel continues to reduce the possibilities of a two-state solution, the UK should be ready to support UNSC resolutions condemning those actions in no uncertain terms. The Government should give serious consideration to now recognising Palestine as a state, as the best way to show its determined attachment to the two-state solution. (Paragraph 270)

65.The process of building more multilateral structures in the region is a long-term one. The process of working within institutional structures helps produce progressive changes in the economic sphere and can help strengthen rules of conduct in the political sphere. (Paragraph 277)

66.Since the smaller Gulf states have demonstrated more economic dynamism and political flexibility in recent years, assisting these countries with further economic integration could help them move towards closer working relations. Here British trade policy can be a useful tool. (Paragraph 278)

Beyond the state

67.It is not a specifically UK interest that countries of the Middle East remain centralised, unitary states. The UK should not devote political will or resources to deliver the goal of unitary and fully-functioning states where this is unattainable, as could well prove to be the case in Iraq, Syria, Libya and Yemen. (Paragraph 291)

68.Neither should the UK actively support this process of state unravelling. It should, however, be prepared to live with de facto arrangements and de facto sub-state entities. The problem of weak states is likely to remain part of the landscape, and often what happens at the national level has little impact at the local level. (Paragraph 292)

69.The Government has to deepen its engagement beyond the state, using all the instruments available to do so. It should be a priority of UK policy to build local ties and seek the broadest range of relationships, with a range of sub-state actors. This must be a coherent Government effort, not just one undertaken by the Foreign Office. (Paragraph 293)

70.We recognise that there is a balance to be drawn between engaging with sub-state actors, and avoiding the risk of undermining the central state. Nevertheless, the Iraqi Kurds are a valuable ally, and the UK should support the Kurdistan Regional Government financially and its Peshmerga forces with military capacity. The UK should not, however, support attempts by the Iraqi Kurds to seek independence. (Paragraph 304)

71.Within the range of non-state jihadist actors, a distinction must be drawn between Da’esh—millenarian and brutal—and other sectarian groups that are fed by local grievances, desire power and can win electoral successes. There is an important distinction between being prepared to talk to individual members of such groups and being prepared to negotiate with them. The latter should be dependent on their willingness to renounce violence. (Paragraph 312)

72.We recommend that the UK Government should be cautious in its engagement with Islamist groups. There are practical benefits to talking to those who have influence and power in the region. (Paragraph 313)

Trade and economic policy

73.The Government has outlined an ambitious menu of post-Brexit trade deals. We reiterate the conclusions of the EU Select Committee and echo our concerns as to whether the resources available to the new Department for International Trade are yet adequate to conduct simultaneously a series of complex trade negotiations on multiple fronts. (Paragraph 319)

74.There is a shared desire and scope for significant growth in services between the UK and Gulf states, which have been developing their non-oil economies, and building capacity in healthcare, education and financial services. The accelerated diversification of economies across the Gulf represents a significant opportunity for British companies. (Paragraph 327)

75.However, the Government’s expectations of the economic dividends of a Gulf-UK agreement in trade and services and the ease of negotiating such an agreement are over-optimistic. It is primarily a continuation of an existing UK trade and investment policy and Brexit does not necessarily offer the UK any added advantage. (Paragraph 328)

76.Anticipating the possibility of public concern about a possible UK-Gulf trade agreement, we recommend that as the UK’s position evolves, the Government should produce a more comprehensive negotiating mandate, detailing the position it will take on issues such as human rights, and capital investment by the Gulf states into the UK, and publish it in advance. (Paragraph 329)

77.A promising possibility for the UK’s post-Brexit trade policy will be to open up the emerging markets of North Africa. A more liberal trade policy, facilitating greater access to UK markets for agricultural products than had previously been possible within the EU, will be particularly beneficial for the economies of those countries, and contribute to their stability. (Paragraph 333)

78.The challenge will be that two significant markets—Tunisia and Morocco—will be simultaneously negotiating trade agreements with the EU. In other countries, such as Jordan and Algeria, the UK will also be negotiating a series of agreements in development, migration, visas, etc. These parallel negotiations will put a strain on the infrastructure of partner countries and Government departments, which will undoubtedly delay the process. (Paragraph 334)

79.There is a risk that the UK’s trade relationship with all countries of the Middle East and North Africa, where there is a preferential trading arrangement with the EU, could be disrupted by Brexit. The Government should take steps to avoid this eventuality. (Paragraph 335)

80.The investment opportunities in Iran are significant and the UK is already losing potential market share to other European countries that are currently taking advantage of a weak UK presence. (Paragraph 341)

81.The UK, as part of a post-Brexit trade strategy, should make trade with Iran a priority. There remain significant barriers, and easing banking restrictions and developing trade with Iran should be a post-Brexit trade priority. (Paragraph 342)

82.To broaden UK-Iranian commercial links, the UK Government should plan a high-profile trade mission to the country, which would go some way to softening the sense of hostility from the US. (Paragraph 343)

83.Finally, improving trade relations with Iran will also require a broader effort to improve UK soft power in the country. The Government should consider a strategy—utilising British cultural assets such as music, football and art—that may go some way to counter the animosity towards the UK still present in some parts of Iranian society. (Paragraph 344)

84.Given the importance of Saudi Arabia as a global economic oil producer and regional security actor, the capacity of Saudi Arabia to succeed in its ambitious transformation is of critical importance to UK interests. It should be a priority of the UK’s approach to the Gulf to support the Saudi transformation. (Paragraph 352)

85.The UK has a potential role in fostering more economic dynamism in oil-producing countries. The UK should consider a series of programmes, with private sector participation, to prepare young people in those countries to find employment in the private sector. (Paragraph 353)

86.There is also an opportunity for government-to-government cooperation in supporting these countries to build more efficient, transparent and streamlined government administrations. (Paragraph 354)

Future British policy

87.In the long term, in a more pacific context, the aim would be to actively encourage more democracy; but that is not the situation we find ourselves in. The priority is now to encourage efforts at stabilising the region. (Paragraph 365)

88.We sympathise with the demands for the UK to undertake an expansive role in the region but it is not possible. External powers cannot on their own build a peaceful Middle East, which respects the rule of law. (Paragraph 366)

89.Nevertheless, the UK and other international partners have also to recognise that the approach of prioritising short-term stability is just that, short-term. Cycles of revolution, counter-revolution and insecurity will continue to be generated by many countries of the Middle East, continuing to pose an ongoing challenge for policy makers. (Paragraph 367)

90.The UK should focus its efforts on sustaining and building the momentum for reform in moderate countries. Countries such as Tunisia, Morocco and Jordan have made important commitments towards domestic reform. Yet all these countries now face significant macro-economic pressures and security concerns that could lead to backsliding. (Paragraph 378)

91.Additional trade incentives and aid compacts are necessary to build the momentum for political and economic reforms in Tunisia, Jordan and Morocco. (Paragraph 379)

92.It will often be advantageous for UK funds to be deployed in cooperation with EU funds. As part of its post-Brexit negotiations, the UK should accord a high priority to ensuring that the UK and EU can continue close working arrangements in trade and development policy in the MENA region. (Paragraph 380)

93.The Government should invest in a long-term plan to increase the UK’s expertise and proficiency in Arabic, considering options to set up Arabic excellence programmes which could be run in conjunction with organisations such as the British Council, for example along the same lines as the Mandarin Excellence Programme. (Paragraph 397)

94.In an age and a region where reliable information is at a discount, the UK Government must continue to invest in and expand the BBC World Service and institutions such as the British Council. (Paragraph 398)

95.There is a real risk that if Britain should convey the wrong or insensitive impression in seeking to control immigration, its soft power and standing could be diminished across the Arab world. (Paragraph 399)

96.The cases of Syria (2013), Libya (2011) and Iraq (2003) have offered lessons both about intervention and non-intervention that must be learned. (Paragraph 409)

97.Syria demonstrates that a limited use of force, without the willingness to commit troops on the ground, is often an ineffective position, especially when the regime and external actors, such as Russia and Iran, are willing to bear significant military costs. Syria makes the case that inaction and non-intervention are also policy choices, with consequences. (Paragraph 410)

98.Iraq demonstrates that military intervention has costs, unexpected consequences and risks of escalation; external powers that undertake intervention must be prepared to meet those costs and prepare to engage for the long term. (Paragraph 411)

99.It is, however, only a credible position for the UK if it is willing in certain circumstances to contribute to the use of force, particularly in support of a rules-based international order. (Paragraph 412)

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