British policy in Middle East ‘is treading water’

In an interview with the Arab Weekly, Chris Doyle, director of the Council for Arab-British Understanding (Caabu), discussed the way ahead for British policy in the region.
Sunday 03/06/2018
Director of the Council for Arab-British Understanding (Caabu) Chris Doyle. (Courtesy of Chris Doyle)
Critical juncture. Director of the Council for Arab-British Understanding (Caabu) Chris Doyle. (Courtesy of Chris Doyle)

LONDON - Chris Doyle has worked with the Council for Arab-British Understanding (Caabu) from 1993 after graduating with a first-class honours degree in Arabic and Islamic Studies at Exeter University. In 2002, he was appointed director of Caabu, a non-profit organisation founded after the 1967 Arab-Israeli war by politicians, academics and journalists “to address the lack of a clear voice in British politics that valued relations with the Arab world.”

Caabu advocates in the British parliament for a more positive UK foreign policy towards the region. It briefs MPs, takes political delegations to the region and provides educational resources for schools and colleges.

Caabu cites on its website several issues that it finds problematic with British foreign policy towards the Middle East, including Britain’s role in the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, what it calls the “US project for coercively reforming” the region and arms sales.

Britain was a colonial power in the Middle East and its legacy lives on, not least because of the 1917 Balfour Declaration, which pledged to establish a Jewish homeland in Palestine. More recently, British policy has aligned more closely with the European Union, favouring a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In January, UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson told then US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson that President Donald Trump’s unilateral decision to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital was a “moment of opportunity” for peace. Until then, the UK, like most other European countries, had criticised Trump’s decision and said it would not move their embassies from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

Britain is also working with France and Germany to help salvage what they can of the Iran nuclear deal, officially known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) after Trump announced on May 8 that he would cease to support the accord. The deal saw Tehran set limits on its nuclear activities in return for the lifting of sanctions.

In an interview, Doyle discussed the way ahead for British policy in the region.

The Arab Weekly (TAW): What impact is Britain’s vote to leave the European Union or Brexit having on its relationship with the Arab world?

Chris Doyle: “It’s unclear yet how Brexit will change things because it’s unclear exactly what Brexit will mean. What it means at the moment though is that ministers, the prime minister, officials are very much obsessed by this because we’re having to go through this divorce period and renegotiation of our relationship with the European Union and it’s dominating the policy agenda completely and utterly.

“This means there’s very little bandwidth for a strategic debate as to Britain’s role in the Middle East, as to how exactly it can contribute to ending the major conflicts in Syria, Yemen, Israel-Palestine and Libya and in the sense that British foreign policy generally is treading water.

“You also have to add that the other context here is a delicate relationship with a Trump White House where all of a sudden very important transatlantic norms are being threatened and ripped up, whether it be on climate change, disarmament, relations with Russia, NATO or trading relationships, which is clearly very worrying to a British policy establishment, which has been very used to having warm ties with the United States and ones where essentially we were agreeing with them on nearly everything. Another thing to add is the issue of Russia as clearly the threat perception from Russia has escalated over the last few years.

“I think we’re going to see very little in the shape of British-led initiatives on any of these great issues. At best, what you’d get now is a British focus on relationships on a trade level. I think this is the way Brexit is having an impact.

“From the other side, other states look at Britain and they’re also on hold, they’re not quite sure what Britain’s future role, future status will be, its future attitude, even whether this current government will survive, whether Theresa May will be prime minister in six months or a year’s time.”

TAW: What might be the fallout from the Iran crisis?

Doyle: “We could be heading towards a major war that involves Iran, Israel and the United States. It will be Europe and the Middle East, not the United States, that has to deal with the fallout. Europe has already taken refugees, nothing like Middle East countries. But refugees did become a domestic European issue over the last few years. It also became an issue in terms of extremism, the attacks we’ve seen in European capitals and European cities. The United States is somewhat more removed from this. Donald Trump has pretty much closed off the United States to Syrian refugees. The last time I looked, it was 11 Syrian refugees they’ve taken this year and it’s further away from the centres of power of [the Islamic State].”