2 thoughts on “Britain and the Middle East: the myth”

  1. Chris Doyle’s article is fascinating. Conspiracy theory with its brothers, reductionism and scapegoating, is the dominant form of thinking in much of the world. It has an acute form in the Middle East.
    Iranians used to tell me that England had brought the mullahs to power and we still had special influence on their story. I used to deny that we worked on that scale but it didn’t take: “small country…great people..” was one reply.
    The view from ‘England’ of our effect on the region is very different. Chris says we do have influence. But…
    We appear to have very little, and often no, power to promote our strategic interests – whether in ending conflicts within states, in reducing the threat from Islamic extremism, in a permanent solution to conflict between Israel and Palestine, in finding a way to promote stability and co-existence across the Gulf, or in slowly advancing the concept of broad-based human development with dignity for the individual under participatory or representative government, which alone can create stability in the long term across the region.
    Our electorates do not support, nor do the EU and US collectively possess, military resources to intervene decisively under the right to protect as often as governments wish. And the US/UK destroyed more than Iraq by their invasion of 2003.
    Collective instruments are not much help. EU policy tools are weak (Neighbourhood Policy and so on). The UN and diplomatic coalitions can easily be thwarted by disagreements between the powers. The statements of the MEPP Quartet and the activity of its envoys, sterile year after sterile year, were worse than weak – lending to mere process an illusion of effectiveness.
    Perhaps the influence we claim is illusory because so often we chose to deny ourselves leverage. And because our values on governance and rights are not widely shared.
    Then there are many less general questions as to why we achieve so little. Is it confusion among our leaders and electorates as to the nature of the issues – which Chris refers to. In one part of the region, is historic guilt towards Jews still an influence? Is another factor the absence of historic guilt at the failure of the powers to honour the proviso in the Balfour Declaration?
    Are short term considerations generally pre-eminent, together with the influence of domestic and international special interest lobbies? Perhaps domestic security worries are what is most important to politicians, and hence anti-terrorism cooperation with whoever can offer it. Then over Yemen, why did we go all out to support Saudi Arabia’s wish to install a government of its choice by force? We appear to give priority to arms sales and being seen by our customers in the region to be reliable suppliers. How much are ministers influenced by the need to keep the financial deposits of Gulf surpluses in our capitals?
    Our partners in the Middle East are not invariable beacons of stability. One must question where the balance of advantage lies in our relationship with them.
    I would say that the EU and North America share a policy of allowing the Gulf States and Israel what they want, but requiring no conditions in return. The result is that we are played successfully by the Gulf and Israel under their rules.
    Their deliberate method over the last few years in the (in the Gulf case) and forever (in Israel’s), has been to be endlessly demanding and rarely satisfied with what the US and EU are doing for them. Being dissatisfied helps your supporters and lobbyists in our democracies. It leaves the states concerned free to support some of our aims and undermine others.
    If such a diagnosis is correct, is it possible to do anything significant to improve the impact of Middle East strategy? My experience of our failures makes me wonder:
    The US will continue to seek primacy in the ME, and the rest of us are evidently constrained by that and by the inter-twined nature of our relations and those of the US in so many other spheres. EU partners, and especially the UK, can be excessively deferential, preferring a word in a few policy-makers’ ears, if we do have doubts, to clear and public statements of difference or warning.
    Regional states will act in what they perceive to be their interests whatever outside powers think or say – and that applies to Russia and Turkey as interveners too.
    Brexit will diminish our economy and thus enhance the commercial motivation in our relations with the Middle East.
    The UK is bad at strategic thinking – consider Iraq as evidence. And, now, Brexit: this is an aside, but why has there been no cabinet or NSC decision to produce a wide-ranging National Overseas Strategy, within which to set the detailed policies now being considered piecemeal.
    The outlook, therefore, is that we shall continue to respond ad hoc to situations that arise in the Middle East. So will we have influence at the strategic level, other than in commerce? I doubt it.

    1. Yes, I am surprised that any suspicion of real British influence persists! I agree with Richard Dalton particularly on the Gulf and Israel.When I write to Ministers about Palestine through my MP (Conservative,Westminster), I ask, among other obvious points I make, whether they do not feel embarrassed and humiliated, while supposedly representing a country advocating independence, freedom,the rule of law etc. at not taking a much stronger stance about about the behaviour of Israel. What sort of hypocritical impression must this give around the world? Israel is after all in constant contravention of Security Council resolutions, the Geneva Convention, international law and has a very unattractive human rights record towards Palestinians well documented by international and indeed Israeli organisations. Yet HMG indulges in little more than ineffectual remonstrance and handwringing, even appearing to oppose very modest forms of sanctions. I imagine Netanyahu must be laughing all the way to the next settlement when he sees a British demarche approaching.

      Needless to say I receive lengthy but proforma ministerial replies about how HMG regards settlements as illegal, favours the two state solution (is this still real?) and makes its views known to Israel. I imagine we can all guess the reasons for HMG’s attitude, but it’s unedifying. Possibly it nonetheless helps reinforce the views of those who think HMG can still pull strings. I have found that when HMG adopts some unwise policy, many in the Middle East think that the British are too clever to do anything as foolish as that, there must therefore be some deep reason behind it which they are not subtle enough to understand.

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