GRM 2010 GRM 2011

Abstract Details

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"Britain is Back, East of Suez": Brexit and the Implications for British Re-engagement with the Gulf
Paper Proposal Text :
Brexit presents an opportunity for a radical shift in British economic and foreign policy, with a chance for Britain to cast its gaze beyond Europe and strengthen old ties. While negotiations are of course ongoing and the full effect of the Brexit decision likely to take years to be felt, one important consequence has been a shift towards re-engagement with GCC states. In her 2016 speech to the GCC, Prime Minister Theresa May made clear that she intends to strengthen economic, security and diplomatic relations with the GCC and forge a ‘strategic relationship’ based on historic ties. Echoing May, Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, used an appearance at the Manama Dialogue security forum to strike a more cordial tone following his controversial remarks concerning Saudi Arabia and Iran’s participation in ‘proxy wars’. Instead, he used the forum to call for an intensification of ‘old friendships’ now that Britain ‘is back East of Suez’. Such speeches foreshadow renewed British interest and engagement in the Gulf. With US ties to the Middle East uncertain given the unpredictability of the new Trump Administration, in particular the future of the ‘Muslim ban’ and Iranian nuclear deal, Britain may be presented a unique opportunity to strengthen its presence in the Gulf region.

This paper examines three key arenas where Britain’s reinvigorated ‘East of Suez’ approach is likely to have a marked impact on regional security and geostrategic conflicts in the Gulf region, including: GCC involvement in the Yemeni conflict; the construction of HMS Jufair naval base and continued war on ISIS; and a potential hardening of UK attitudes towards Iran. Drawing from fieldwork conducted in both the UK and the GCC, the paper considers the potential impact of Brexit on not just the GCC as a whole, but also more country-specific outcomes, in particular in Bahrain. Additionally, the paper offers an analysis of UK intra-party politics post-Brexit, in order to understand the new personalities and pressures within the Conservative Party that are driving this re-engagement with the Gulf region. As tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran continue to escalate, British re-engagement with the Gulf will likely embolden the GCC states’ involvement in Middle East affairs.

First, the paper argues that the UK’s continued arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the GCC states, alongside statements indicating an intention to increase security cooperation, will enhance the GCC’s ability to continue active engagement in the Yemeni conflict. Though the primary drivers of Saudi engagement in Yemen are domestic in nature, related particularly to factionalism and competition within the royal family, a post-Brexit Britain, seeking to strengthen bilateral relationships in the Gulf region, will certainly encourage GCC government factions searching for international approval for their involvement in the conflict; some indication of this was perhaps given by Downing Street’s quick rebuke of Johnson’s ‘proxy war’ comments.

Second, the paper uses an in-depth case study of Bahrain to outline two potential implications of the longer-term strategic shift back to the Gulf which Britain has been pursuing since at least 2013 (and which is now likely to intensify post-Brexit), manifested through the construction of new military bases in the GCC region, including, al-Minhad air base in the UAE, the new Regional Land Training centre in Oman, and the HMS Jufair naval base in Bahrain. Domestically, by making clear that the UK will prioritise security cooperation on terrorism over human rights concerns, the base enhances the position of the Bahraini Government and offers tacit legitimacy to the current crackdown on domestic dissidents, and the paper forwards a detailed analysis for the potential impact this will have on domestic Bahraini state-society relations. Internationally, this will improve UK access to regional conflicts (such as the War on ISIS), enhancing Bahrain’s status as a key partner in the Gulf for Western states. From a British perspective, this represents an intensification rather than an alteration of existing relations, yet, considering Obama’s tentative ‘pivot to Asia’ and Trump’s potential isolationism, the strengthening of a symbiotic security relationship between the UK and Bahrain will be a welcome change to the Bahraini Government.

Third, recent statements by Theresa May and other senior officials suggest a hardening of UK relations with Iran, contrary to the tentative rapprochement that characterised the P5+1 negotiations over the Iran nuclear deal under former Prime Minister David Cameron. Although Britain remains firmly supportive of the nuclear deal itself, May’s comments at the GCC summit in December 2016 suggest a toughening of the UK’s rhetoric towards Iran’s ‘aggressive regional actions’. This too, aligns closely with GCC, and specifically Saudi regional aspirations. Combined with Trump’s declaration that he would “rip up” the nuclear deal, this may represent an important swing in international pressure that will effectively support the GCC states in their rivalry with Iran. In turn, this is likely to encourage more aggressive Saudi and GCC involvement in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and other arenas of regional engagement in which the Saudis perceive a proxy war between themselves and the Iranians.

The ultimate result, the paper argues, will be the emboldening of the GCC countries, both domestically and in terms of their involvement in regional conflicts. Contrary to recent expectations of reduced GCC regional engagement due to continued low oil prices and domestic fiscal pressures, Brexit presents an opportunity for strengthened relations between the UK and the GCC and, regionally, the re-empowerment of GCC states relative to other actors in the Middle East.