by Jonathan Fenton-Harvey
Amid economic and political uncertainty over Britain’s exit from the European Union (Brexit), the United Kingdom may drift closer toward the United States and other traditional allies like Saudi Arabia and Israel. Yet such an outcome could force Britain to follow Washington’s Middle East policy, while diminishing London’s influence over other countries, unless Britain alters its stance.
Although Britain still has the choice to remain close to Europe in a post-Brexit scenario, and stay part of the single European market, the UK parliament’s lack of decisiveness and the severe polarization in the political sphere have also left Britain vulnerable to a no-deal Brexit. ith Brexit stalled as the deadline is repeatedly delayed, the UK faces pressure to secure trade deals elsewhere. Meanwhile, this occurs at the expense of other issues, such as human rights.
Britain still technically supports the P5+1 Iran deal. On May 13, as the Trump administration was reimposing further sanctions, Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt warned of conflict between Washington and Tehran during Pompeo’s visit to Brussels. Yet Britain’s stance may harden. At the very least, it may diverge from Europe’s position on Iran, which increasingly differs from that of the United States, as Pompeo’s latest meeting with EU diplomats demonstrates.
London has after all criticized Tehran for potentially breaching the deal in response to Washington’s hard-line approach. It did not, moreover, criticize the U.S. withdrawal from the deal despite Iran’s abiding by its terms. UK-drafted UN resolutions on Yemen, meanwhile, have often focused on demonizing Iran for its limited role in the war.
Britain had previously shown signs of drifting away from Europe’s positions on the Middle East. In February, the EU attempted to add Saudi Arabia to a “dirty-money” blacklist for having lax controls on financing terrorism and money-laundering. Although other EU states eventually blocked this move, Britain was one of the first and loudest voices condemning the resolution.
Britain also tried to persuade Germany not to end military support to Saudi Arabia, despite increasing awareness of Riyadh’s human rights violations on Yemen and stigma over being linked to the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Britain supports maintaining ties with Saudi Arabia. After all, Riyadh seeks to increase investments in Britain, including a $65 billion trade and investment deal during Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman’s visit to London last year. Furthermore, Britain would likely seek to continue arms sales to the kingdom to compensate for lost EU trade. London has even increased arms sales to Saudi Arabia, despite knowing that these weapons may be used in war crimes.
Likewise, Jeremy Hunt’s condemnation of Hamas in the latest Gaza-Israel violence while not addressing the Israel Defence Force’s disproportionate use of force shows that London is hardening its pro-Israel stance. Further evidence is that Britain joined the United States in designating Lebanon’s Hezbollah—both its political and military wings—as a terrorist organization, which shows greater support for Israel. Moreover, although past British governments have called for a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine, the current government surprised European allies by blocking a EU resolution calling for such a two-state solution. Britain has also not joined the EU in criticizing Israeli actions like its “nation state” law last year. Finally, last year, the government cracked down on the Boycott, Divestment & Sanctions (BDS) movement in the UK, which Hunt wants to “combat.”
All of these policies not only appease a very pro-Israel U.S. administration, which controversially recognized the Golan Heights as Israeli territory and Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, they also help Britain secure another trade partner. Israeli companies have increased their investment since the 2016 Brexit referendum, and both Israel and Britain have already signed a post-Brexit trade continuity agreement.
If and when it leaves the European Union, Britain would further align itself with the foreign policies of America and its close Middle Eastern allies. This could diminish Britain’s influence in the region, while potentially making it more tolerant of human rights violations and aggressive intervention.
Although Theresa May is evidently tolerant of this stance, if UK Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn became prime minister, he could challenge the “special relationship” with America, argues Malcolm Chalmers, deputy director-general of the Royal United Services Institute. Corbyn has previously called for Britain to reassess its stance on Israel and Saudi Arabia over their actions in Palestine and Yemen respectively. A Corbyn-led government seems increasingly possible, as polls indicate that the popularity of May and the Conservatives is sinking, in part due to their inability to propose an acceptable Brexit deal. An election could happen sooner than the planned 2022 date. Since Labour has supported the maintenance of some economic and political ties with the European Union, with many MPs outright opposing Brexit, a Corbyn-led government might block an increased drift toward America’s foreign policy.
Jonathan Fenton-Harvey is a roaming journalist and researcher who focuses on conflict, international relations and humanitarian issues within the Middle East and North Africa. He has particularly focused on the Yemen conflict, Libya and Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) regional foreign policy. He has also studied History and Middle East Studies at the University of Exeter, in the United Kingdom. Follow him on twitter: @jfentonharvey