Has David Cameron’s return revitalised UK policy in the Middle East?

Having a foreign secretary with status that is largely free of domestic political concerns matters, but a lack of strategy matters more.

Expert comment
4 minute READ

David Cameron’s appointment as foreign secretary was a bold and surprising move by Prime Minister Rishi Sunak. Initial reactions focussed on the domestic connotations of Cameron’s return, but the ex-premier’s arrival at King Charles Street marked a changed approach to UK foreign policy. 

With the newly ennobled peer free of constituency obligations and the House of Commons, Cameron has injected energy and purpose into Britain’s international affairs. Nowhere has this seemed more apparent than with the Israeli-Palestinian crisis, in which Cameron has sought to play a more prominent role. 

But, after years of relative disinterest in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), is this renewed engagement having any impact? Is it part of a wider UK strategy and does the UK still have the capacity and influence to affect the region?

A new broom?

After Cameron resigned as prime minister in 2016, most of the oxygen in UK foreign policy was taken up by Brexit. The five UK foreign secretaries from July 2016 until Cameron’s arrival in November 2023 played no meaningful role in the MENA region. 

The UK was and remains a vocal supporter of Ukraine, but MENA, a key strategic location where the UK has traditionally been influential, seemed of little importance beyond the pursuit of trade deals. 

In 2022, the UK even axed the position of Minister of State for the Middle East and North Africa, only restoring it subsequently as a combined role which also covers South Asia and the UN.

Cameron has sought to make his presence felt through high level diplomacy over Israel and Palestine, including contributing to plans for the ‘day after’ Israel’s assault on Gaza.

Four months into Cameron’s term, however, the contrast is stark. He has sought to make his presence felt through high level diplomacy over Israel and Palestine, including contributing to plans for the ‘day after’ Israel’s assault on Gaza. 

The UK has remained broadly supportive of Israel’s right to retaliate against Hamas after the 7 October attacks and, controversially, pulled its funding for the UN’s Palestinian relief fund, UNRWA. But Cameron has simultaneously urged Israel to allow more aid into Gaza and followed the US in sanctioning a limited number of West Bank Settlers. 

He also suggested that the UK may recognise the state of Palestine prior to the agreement of a comprehensive peace deal – a major departure from London’s existing policy.

Beyond Gaza, the UK joined the US in launching airstrikes on Yemen, establishing a joint US-UK role in the Red Sea to deter the pro-Iranian Houthis from further attacks on shipping undertaken in ostensible support of Hamas. 

Lack of strategy

However, despite Cameron’s energy, this does not appear to be part of a broader foreign policy strategy. The UK’s response towards Gaza and MENA in general remains reactive and Britain is not at the forefront of discussion on what comes next. 

The UK has been weakened by Brexit, internal feuding and diminished economic, diplomatic and military capacity, making it harder for Cameron to get his voice heard.

Partly this is structural. The UK has been weakened by Brexit, internal feuding and diminished economic, diplomatic and military capacity, making it harder for Cameron to get his voice heard. The West in general is less influential in MENA than it once was, and the UK, after loosening ties to the EU, is less influential within that western bloc.

Moreover, after leaving the EU, the UK has placed more weight on the ‘Special Relationship’ with the US, leaving it with even less maneuverability. 

Some have suggested that Cameron has positioned himself as a useful ‘outrider’ for the US on Gaza, making suggestions such as proposing to recognise Palestine as a way to pressure Israel on the US’s behalf. This may be true, but it still shows how British MENA policy remains conditioned primarily by the US’s approach.

Domestic UK politics compound matters. The imminent general election inevitably limits the UK’s bandwidth for developing a strategic approach to the region.

Interests and levers 

Despite these limitations, the UK does have continued strategic interests in the Israel-Palestine conflict and some leverage that it can utilise if it chooses. These may be incentives, such as ongoing diplomatic support to an increasingly isolated Israel or disincentives, like further sanctions or the (largely symbolic) cessation of arms sales. 

As well as wanting to ensure it remains close to the US, London holds a broader interest in resolving the conflict and preventing future outbreaks. The Gaza war has, thus far, played out badly for the West in the Global South. 

Many in the Global South (and beyond) view it as an imperial war with western states aiding Israel’s attacks on a population now threatened with ‘imminent’ famine, in violation of the so-called rules-based order. 

China and Russia, among others, have been quick to paint western powers as complicit to Global South audiences with some success.

One way to mitigate this might be to take a lead on much needed aid in Gaza. 

As premier, Cameron had enshrined in law for the UK to spend 0.7 per cent of Gross National Income (GNI) on aid. However, after his predecessors cut that outlay to 0.5 per cent and merged the Department for International Development with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the UK is no longer the ‘aid superpower’ Cameron hoped it would be. 

The UK is no longer the ‘aid superpower’ Cameron hoped it would be. This might be one strategic area that the (likely) new Labour government might consider to maximise Britain’s limited traction over the Israel-Palestine conflict.

This might be one strategic area that the (likely) new Labour government might consider to maximise Britain’s limited traction over the Israel-Palestine conflict and MENA. 

However, while shadow foreign secretary David Lammy has indicated that a Labour government would appoint a Middle East envoy, there are few indications that Labour will place any more renewed emphasis on the region.  Moreover, with the challenges that might result from a Trump presidency, the current UK approach focused on influencing Washington is fraught with risk. 

Article second half

The UK must find a means of engaging across the region in a way that recognises its interconnecting challenges. This includes mediating with an increasingly hard-line Israeli government and a divided Palestinian landscape while also responding to the so-called ‘Axis of Resistance’ and wider conflict dynamics in the region, such as Iran’s nuclear programme. 

These challenges come at a time that the UK Government has cut funding on conflict prevention (and MENA budgets in particular). Indeed, conflict prevention was no longer listed as a specific priority in the 2023 Integrated Review.

To forge a credible strategy, the UK must match its resources with its aspirations. 

To forge a credible strategy, the UK must match its resources with its aspirations. In reality, this may boil down to a decision of whether the UK seeks to continue to be a team player that bridges the views of European and US governments or decides to focus on more tangible outcomes on its own. 

Rather than seeking to rediscover its great power status, the UK may be better served looking to the examples of other states that have sought to craft themselves a niche, such as Norway with its focus on refugees, or Switzerland and its focus on peacebuilding. 

Yet it is not clear that the UK political establishment is prepared for such a sober reading of the UK’s place in the world. It is certain, however, that it will take more than an enthusiastic and engaged new foreign secretary to grapple with these challenges.