The next UK government should make conflict resolution the centrepiece of its MENA policy

The UK needs to narrow its policy goals to concentrate its resources on stabilizing the region’s unresolved conflicts.

Expert comment Published 7 June 2024 3 minute READ

When then foreign secretary James Cleverly took to the airwaves in April 2023 to discuss the outbreak of conflict in Sudan, the discussion focused almost solely on the evacuation of British citizens.

The interviewer did not ask questions regarding the wider context in Sudan. Neither did Cleverly offer pro-active statements of British policy towards the conflict.

That interview was emblematic. While all politics might be said to be local, the relative absence of British articulations of foreign policy solutions in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) has become a feature of the post-2016 period.

In recent months, UK Foreign Secretary David Cameron has more clearly and openly set out British positions amid the escalating Israeli war on Gaza.

Cameron’s approach appears to present a return to the orthodoxy of pre-Brexit UK foreign policy. But the extent to which his pronouncements are connected with meaningful policy programmes practical initiatives supported and sometimes implemented by the FCDO is open to question.

There has been little daylight between the position of the Conservative and Labour parties over events in Gaza.

With Britons heading to the polls in July, the incoming UK government will inherit a highly complex and volatile landscape across the Middle East and North Africa. There is no question that it will need to deepen its engagement and make the most of its influence.

To do this effectively, the UK will need to prioritize its role in multilateral efforts and narrow its strategic focus so that it can back words with actions. A strategic focus on conflict resolution and support for accountable governance offers the opportunity to do just that.

Approach towards international partnership

There has been little daylight between the position of the Conservative and Labour parties over events in Gaza, and Labour has supported British air strikes on the Houthis in Yemen.

But there does seem to be one emerging difference between the two parties’ attitudes towards multilateralism and multilateral institutions. In a TV debate on Tuesday, UK Conservative Party leader and Prime Minister Rishi Sunak struck a tone that indicated multilateral commitments would be sacrificed if necessary to achieve migration reduction goals.

Labour leader, Keir Starmer, made it clear that a Labour government would see the UK’s interests as better served by playing a leading role in multilateral institutions.

Shadow Foreign Secretary David Lammy told the Fabian Society in February that Labour’s ‘progressive realist’ vision of foreign policy would be ‘founded on our values of equality, the rule of law, and internationalism.’

This approach indicates a broader willingness to engage in international partnership, which will be necessary if the UK is to revitalize its policy in the MENA region. Though how this sentiment will translate into policy under a Labour government remains unclear.  

The need to back words with meaningful action

Regardless of who wins the election, there is a need to match policy pronouncements with tangible outputs.

No British foreign secretary has visited Libya since 2017. This is ceding influence to other actors in the region.

In recent years, UK diplomats have been engaging largely without meaningful political backing or interest from government ministers.

For example, despite playing a leading role in the intervention to overthrow Muammar Gaddafi in Libya in 2011, no British foreign secretary has visited Libya since 2017. This is ceding influence to other actors in the region. By contrast, the deputy Russian foreign minister has visited eastern Libya multiple times in recent months to build relations with Khalifa Haftar, the dominant military commander in the area.

Prior to 7 October 2023, UK engagement in the region had instead become rather transparently linked to the quest for trade deals rather than broader political objectives. This, combined with cuts to aid spending and the temporary removal of the Middle East Minister position, has harmed UK influence across the region and failed to make the most of Britain’s diplomatic capital.

The UK has continued to play an important diplomatic role in the MENA region, perhaps most notably as a penholder in the UN Security Council for Libya, Yemen and Sudan.

Yet, its ability to deliver the policy outcomes it articulates via sustained, committed activity is open to question. Some years ago, I spoke with a senior British diplomat who said that ‘there are only so many times I can approach the Americans and explain to them another idea that they should implement.’

A strategic focus on conflict resolution

While UK influence in the MENA region may be diminished in comparison to its historical status, it remains a significant player.

The case for a strategic focus on conflict resolution in the MENA region is compelling.

A recent book exploring UK policy towards the Middle East made the case that the UK should ‘do less, but do it better’. Such an approach should be instructive to the next government.

Rather than trying to engage across all areas, the UK would be better served by narrowing its policy goals and concentrating resources in pursuit of those ambitions.

The case for a strategic focus on conflict resolution in the MENA region is compelling. The aftermath of the 7 October attacks has highlighted the failure of previous attempts at conflict management in the region. 

Freezing the Middle East’s conflicts is not sufficient, as unresolved conflicts in Palestine, Syria and Yemen have fuelled transnational regional conflict. As just one example, Iran is engaged across all of these contexts, allowing it to export conflict across the region.

The UK could play a more proactive role in conflict resolution. It has the political assets to do so, with a longstanding presence in the region and strong relationships with political leaders. It also has experience supporting research and practical programming in the fields of conflict stabilization and development.

Indeed, a recent report by Labour Together argued that the UK could play a leading role in mediating high profile conflicts, most notably in Libya, Yemen and Sudan. Labour has announced that it would create a Middle East Peace Envoy should it win the election.

Supporting efforts to deliver accountability

That would be a step in the right direction, but such efforts should extend beyond mediation.

A close look at the MENA region’s conflicts shows that deals cut between warring elites can entrench conflict rather than resolving it. Lebanon’s economy has crumbled as a result of entrenched corruption among cooperating elites, while politically sanctioned corruption in Iraq has become an enduring barrier to reform.

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In Libya, corruption has now penetrated the oil sector, causing state expenditure to skyrocket and act as boon to kleptocratic accumulation. Supporting efforts to improve accountability and transparency in these MENA states should therefore be a key policy objective if stability is to be brought to the region. 

Such an approach will also bring other benefits, such as providing sustainable means of reducing irregular migration which has surged via the Middle East and North Africa. 

This is an issue which has become a political lightning rod in the UK political discourse.

Put together, a focus on supporting conflict resolution and accountable governance in states where the UK maintains significant influence would bring clarity and purpose to British foreign policy, and make a real contribution to long-term regional security.