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How Britain can update its Middle East policy to suit its interests

November 7, 2015 at 11:00 am

On Tuesday, Britain’s Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) released a report on policy recommendations for the next Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR), due to come out before the end of this year. The SDSR is a report compiled by the ministry of defence which assesses both domestic and global security and highlights a framework for broader British defence policy. The SDSR typically takes into account the defence budget and the status and size of the British armed forces, along with threats, risks and potential to exert both hard and soft power, to ensure a competent and contemporary defence framework for future policies.

The report stated rightfully that the global order is moving further towards multi-polarity; there is a growing list of increasingly powerful actors in the world community and this is something that needs to be considered when preparing the SDSR. It also pointed out that since David Cameron’s election victory in May, Britain has become increasingly isolationist, which will have a long-term impact on Britain’s position within the international community. As a result, the authors recommend highly that a more internationalist approach needs to be taken and for diplomacy to have a more serious role in the defence framework.

For this to be implemented in the most efficient way possible, British foreign and defence policies need to look very different to those shaped by the Conservative government. Looking at British policy in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) is the perfect example for the wider effect of what underestimating soft power leads to.

Currently, Britain’s foreign and defence policies for the Middle East are fairly straightforward: find leaders or groups with mutual interests and endorse them; it’s a Cold War-style approach that should have ended abruptly at the start of the Arab Spring. It does not take the synergy of MENA politics into consideration and seeks to impose, rather than to understand and negotiate. This model simply does not work when MENA leaders have an insecure hold on power. Activism on the ground is strengthening and, generally, the only reason dips in activism occur is because of the use of further oppression and brute force by the MENA governments, instead of citizens’ demands being met. This is unsustainable and can threaten national security domestically, as well as having an impact on British diplomatic legitimacy overseas.

What would be more suitable for Britain, and it will facilitate the aim of securitising the MENA region, is the ability to work with governments and non-state actors that the British government may not necessarily agree with or find greater mutual interest with. The Norwegian model, which is seemingly controversial but more pragmatic, then becomes the perfect example of a modern and successful foreign policy. If Britain adopts a similar style, it will not just be able to reach out to elites, but also to influential non-state actors in the region and, most importantly, citizens as the democratisation process becomes more prevalent.

For this model to be implemented, there should be more awareness amongst British politicians of the way that non-state actors in the MENA region operate. For example, many politicians believe that Hamas is listed as a terrorist organisation in Britain; Prime Minister David Cameron attacked Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn for referring to Hamas as “friends”. Forget for the moment that the quote was taken out of context, in actual fact Britain’s list of proscribed terrorist organisations does not include the Islamic movement as a whole; only the military wing is regarded as a terrorist group. The fact that the prime minister himself did not appreciate this during his anti-Corbyn campaign shows the level of misunderstanding within the political elite in Britain about where such non-state actors in the MENA region stand. This not only gets in the way of policy decisions, but also clear the ability to have a clear understanding of the way that Hamas and other non-state actors who influence MENA politics are developing. The fact that it is only the military wing of Hamas that is designated as a terrorist group in Britain means that foreign and defence policies must use more diplomatic methods, such as the Norwegian model, to ensure that British interests are protected.

It is becoming increasingly evident that Hamas and other non-state actors with long-term interests in the MENA region are relying on their autonomy for both regional and global legitimacy, which has a direct impact on British influence. This, however, would not justify diplomacy with organisations that are registered as terrorists. Even in the context of Hamas, when studying the group closely, it is clear that there is a massive difference between working with Al-Qassam Brigades — the movement’s military wing — and trying to negotiate with Ismail Haniyeh, for example, who has a vested interest in increasing his political legitimacy globally. The fact that he has showed willingness to form a unity government with Fatah, which recognises Israel’s right to exist within the 1967 boundaries, is proof of this.

At a time in which the discourse within the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is changing, Britain needs to align itself accordingly to manoeuvre around the changes for its own good. It is clear from the current Israeli government’s extremism — from its endorsement of illegal settlements to having the Israeli Minister of Justice Ayelet Shaked calling publicly for the genocide of Palestinians prior to her appointment before funding her election campaign through the smuggling of weapons and drugs — that it is now least able to offer stability to Britain through its policies, arguably for the first time since the state was created on Palestinian land in 1948.

At the same time, Hamas is starting to see results from its political advancements outside the MENA region. Khaled Meshaal was welcomed to South Africa recently by the African National Congress and was given the chance to promote the movement. Netanyahu reacted infamously by claiming that Hitler wasn’t going to carry out the Holocaust until a leading Palestinian convinced him to do so. The Israeli prime minister was duly ridiculed by the international community and even the German government intervened almost immediately to refute his rogue historical narrative.

Not only does the extremist rhetoric coming out of Israel at an all-time high rate mean that the government is unable to facilitate Britain’s quest for long term stability and a two-state solution, but it also indicates that the current Israeli government is dismantling all peace initiatives that took decades to build. PLO Executive Secretary Saeb Erekat has threatened to withdraw recognition of Israel because Israel is proving to be uncommitted to the conditions of the 1988 shock recognition announcement by the Palestinian umbrella organisation, which came about as a result of competent diplomacy.

This example alone suggests that the classic tactic of implementing “black and white” style policies can no longer work in the MENA region because the situation needs more careful monitoring. Even taking the focus away from the Palestinians for the moment, engaging with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt instead of backing a military coup may have been tedious in the short term, but would have been more effective in securing British interests in Egypt in the long term. The marginalisation of groups which may not tie-in exactly with British policy is actually stunting democracy in the MENA region, and is also incompatible with long-term British interests therein. This means that there is absolutely no reason, especially in such a fragile neighbourhood, to endorse military dictatorships which are a factor in regional instability and extremist governments which apparently have no incentive for peace with their neighbours.

The British government may face difficult consequences as the allies it has endorsed in the past are now more autonomous and able to put undue pressure on Britain, similar to what the UAE has done against Cameron to crack down on the Muslim Brotherhood. With all the signs of global multi-polarity becoming clearer, this, though, is exactly why Britain cannot rely on the same old kind of policies. The world is changing, and the British government should change with it.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.