A new report by BICOM, “British Middle East Strategy after Brexit” is an analysis of UK policy in the Middle East and an assessment of UK interests, military and aid commitments in light of Brexit and shifting alliances in the region. The report has concluded that the Foreign Office budget should be increased and defence spending maintained or increased, if the UK is to expand trade and combat future security threats.
The UK has deep and enduring economic and security interests in the Middle East. These include ensuring energy security, fighting terrorism, expanding trade, and investment. These vital interests are reflected by increased UK investment in aid, military infrastructure, and economic ties to the region.
Brexit has fuelled a necessary debate about British foreign policy strategy and Britain’s place in the world, as have global changes including US retrenchment and Russian resurgence. This paper provides an overview of UK policy, military assets and operations and aid contributions to the region and makes the following recommendations for future policy and strategy:
1. To advance British interests in the region, Britain must invest in activity that project’s UK influence overseas such as diplomacy, trade, aid, military capability and cultural outreach. It can’t do this on the cheap.
2. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) budget needs to be increased so it can expand diplomatic posts and train diplomats. Just 30 per cent of FCO diplomats in Arabic speaking countries can speak Arabic, compared to 64 per cent of US diplomats in similar posts.
3. Maintaining UK defence spending at or above 2 per cent of GDP is critical for armed forces capability and the UK’s operational scope in the Middle East.
4. With growing uncertainty about the US’s global role, the UK needs to seek other partners such as local or European allies with shared interests such as France and Germany. Even after leaving the EU, British interests will be inherently connected to European security and stability.
5. Cooperation over shared interests with Russia is highly unlikely. The UK and its allies need to avoid the mistake of misjudging the impact of Russia’s intervention in Syria and Britain should work with partners to confront Russia’s assertive agenda.
6. The UK’s core interests are best protected by close ties with Gulf States and efforts to contain Iran. Britain should deepen security cooperation and take a tougher approach to Iran’s destabilising regional activity and remain committed to preventing Iran acquiring nuclear weapons. To deepen trade relations, the UK should seek a comprehensive free trade deal with the GCC states.
7. The UK should continue to seek defence cooperation and offer training to allies in the Middle East, especially in areas such as cyber, intelligence, and special forces where the UK excels. Regarding defence sales, policymakers should remain cognisant of their significance for UK regional influence, as well as jobs, whilst maintaining commitment to international law and standards.
8. Despite past experience which has made military intervention in the Middle East domestically unpopular, the UK has recently demonstrated new effective models of military involvement. UK participation in the fight against ISIS established a model of intervention against a clearly legitimate target that the UK public will support. Recent air strikes against the Assad regime’s chemical weapons sites reaffirmed a policy option to protect civilians and uphold international standards.
9. To create conditions for progress between Israelis and Palestinians, the UK need not wait for the US. The UK can provide more support for Palestinian Authority (PA) governance, increase action against PA corruption, maintain support for PA security forces, invest more in Israeli-Palestinian dialogue projects and urge Israel to allow Palestinian development in Area C in the West Bank.
The full paper below is available as a PDF below.