The last few weeks have seen Britain keen to position itself as one of the leaders of a Western response to Russia’s aggression in Ukraine. Around this time last year, however, the UK was busy announcing its plans to ‘tilt’ towards the Indo-Pacific, in part to counter China’s rise, in part to seek new trade opportunities.
Amid this geopolitical focus in Europe and Asia, the UK risks overlooking a key geostrategic region: the Middle East. The ministerial role, quietly axed this month, was held by James Cleverly and previously Alistair Burt. Instead, Cleverly will be responsible for Europe and the Americas, and Iran, while the remainder of the Middle Eastern responsibilities will be taken on by Amanda Milling.
This comes just a month after the UK cut £90 million of specialist work on conflict prevention to the Middle East and North Africa, and cut 50 per cent of funding for work protecting children from landmines, including in Syria and Lebanon. Syrian refugee and aid programmes have also been cut.
Britain’s tilt eastwards
It is difficult to see how Milling and Cleverly will have time to focus on the Middle East alongside everything else. Cleverly will, quite rightly, have to prioritize the conflict in Ukraine and its probably protracted aftermath, and he’ll also have to oversee the UK’s wider relationship with Europe. Milling has to deal with China’s rise and Britain’s trade and defence ambitions in the Asia-Pacific region, which in the next few years could see increased tensions over Taiwan.
How quickly things change. Not so long ago, this Middle East was the focus of the UK’s military and diplomatic activities. The Cameron Government arguably began its own eastward ‘tilt’ long before Brexit necessitated it. For them, looking east wasn’t just about the Pacific region, or indeed about countering China, but capitalizing on new trade and investment opportunities from Abu Dhabi to Shanghai.
The UK played a key role in brokering the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) to stop Iran developing nuclear weapons, and has been active in Iraq and Syria to counter ISIS.
And of course, further back in its history, the UK played a formative role in the Middle East. Many of the region’s countries are former British colonies or protectorates. The UK helped establish the post-war state of Israel and was at the centre of the Suez Crisis. Its history in the area is long, often bloody, at times mercantile, and occasionally peace-making.
Why the Middle East remains critical
To abandon the region at a time of rising geopolitical instability would be a huge mistake. While the headlines might be made by China, the US and Russia, the Middle East will remain of critical importance.
For starters, the aforementioned JCPOA negotiations in Iran are themselves a sufficient reason to remain active in the region. The politics of the deal, particularly after Trump’s exit, are highly sensitive. Reaching a peaceful and sustainable outcome will require extraordinary tact and long-term commitment. Downgrading official attention on the region, and continually moving ministers, is not the way to win trust or convince Middle Eastern partners that the UK is taking their concerns seriously.
However, the Iran nuclear deal is just the tip of the iceberg. The Middle East and North Africa will be critical for global security on multiple fronts. On climate, the next two COP climate conferences will be in the region: Sharm El Sheikh this year and the UAE next year. For refugees, as ongoing political instability displaces families – which has and will continue to affect European countries. For terrorism, which remains a threat to the West, but is also a lived reality for many in the Middle East.
Similarly, the ongoing conflict in Yemen risks escalating, after Yemeni rebels recently attacked the UAE, drawing further strikes from Saudi-led forces. The geopolitics of the region can change rapidly. Only a few years ago, the Arab Spring threatened to bring down Middle Eastern governments. More recently, the Abraham Accords created new and somewhat unexpected alliances. Managing these changing dynamics will require a level of attentiveness that is not possible if ministers and civil servants are spread between multiple regions.
A further concern is that the next few years are likely to see the return of oil geopolitics. As Western countries impose sanctions on Russia and cut off its gas supply, oil prices are likely to skyrocket.
OPEC+ countries, which include Russia, will then have to decide whether to increase supplies. Uncertainty over the Iran deal, turmoil in Libya, the US midterm elections and post-COVID-19 economic recovery could mean even more volatility in oil prices. Having had a few decades of relative calm, the geopolitics of energy and energy transition are likely to return in full vengeance.
Third, the Middle East and North Africa are key sites in the battle of ideas between the West and autocratic regimes. China has invested heavily in Africa, not just in terms of trade but also military bases and soft power, while Russia sees certain parts of the Middle East as within its sphere of influence.
As the UK slashes its development budget, particularly hitting projects in Africa, and France pulls out of Mali, a key geostrategic region risks falling to the interests of non-Western rivals.