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Since the Brexit referendum results were announced, and the subsequent months of continuous bitter negotiating, various political analysts, journalists and academics alike have sought to theorise on what the possible actions and patterns for British foreign policy might be. Some have highlighted the dangers, whilst others have noted the opportunities. Nevertheless, a picture is gradually emerging of what kind of policies Britain’s current government is likely to pursue in a post-Brexit world.
Arguably, the most worrying but unsurprising theme that is emerging is Britain’s policy of not only maintaining but further investing and developing closer ties with authoritarian regimes in the Middle East, including expanding arms sales and using its military power to secure financial and economic interests.
In a recent speech to business leaders in London, Secretary of State for International Trade, Liam Fox, laid out the government of the day’s aspirations in a post-Brexit world. He vowed to transform the UK into a “21st century exporting superpower” as he attempted to persuade a number of companies to trade as Britain prepares to leave the EU.
The strategy highlighted a number of opportunities across Asia and the Middle East, including big projects in the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. Therefore, the anticipated economic cost of Brexit, coupled with Britain’s inevitably reduced global influence, has promoted the perceived significance of relations with the Gulf States, many of whom were historic colonies of the British Empire.
Relations with these countries of which the United Kingdom maintains deep-rooted military and economic ties provides a useful and bleak illustration of what lies ahead.
Saudi Arabia and Bahrain – two countries in particular with whom the British government continues to not only strongly support but overlook their continuous human rights violations, spread of extremism and authoritarian disruptive actions across the region.
Bahrain, governed by a Sunni monarchy family who rules over a Shiite-majority population with an iron fist. With the help of the al-Saud family, the al-Khalifa ruling family have continued to brutally crackdown on protests more so since the Arab Spring began in 2011. The Foreign Office has pumped more than £5 million since 2012 into Bahrain’s security and justice system. According to the human rights group Reprieve, death row has grown three times as long in duration as they believe that the UK may have even trained Bahraini torturers.
Similarly, Britain continues to adopt a double standard approach to Saudi Arabia’s s indiscriminate bombing of Yemen. A Saudi-led coalition has been fighting the Houthis in Yemen, the poorest country in the Arab world. In Yemen, over 10,000 people have died, a cholera outbreak has killed more than 1,700 people and over 22 million people need urgent humanitarian assistance. Stephen O’Brien, the UN’s humanitarian chief, called this a “man-made catastrophe”.
International organisations — including a UN panel of experts, the European Parliament and an array of human rights groups — have repeatedly condemned Saudi-led airstrikes in Yemen as unlawful. Britain has twice blocked attempts proposed through the UN Human Rights Council to establish a non-Saudi-led inquiry into alleged violations of international law in Yemen. Britain is therefore likely seeking to safeguard its economic relationship with Saudi in the event of a no-deal Brexit.
The British government continues to sell weapons and forge deeper ties with the Saud family, most recently lavishly hosting Mohammad bin Salman. On the one hand, the Foreign Office is quick to point out the UK’s role in being one of the largest providers of aid to Yemen, but makes no mention of Britain’s role in supplying some £4.5 billion worth of arms to Saudi Arabia. Playing a dual role of providing aid whilst selling arms is not only a double standard but also self-defeating.
As Britain edges towards a crossroad, a post-Brexit environment should provide Britain with a chance to reflect and re-evaluate its foreign relationships and its role in the Middle East as a whole. Whilst closer ties to these authoritarian regimes may have short-term economic benefits, they will undoubtedly have long-term catastrophic results.
For now, these lucrative economic deals, as well as Britain’s diplomatic influence and access to strategic bases, seem to continue to form the crux of Britain’s foreign policy in the Middle East as British policymakers continue to turn a blind eye on human rights violations committed by their allies.
CAAT. (2017, November 8). Huge increase in value of bombs and missiles licensed to Saudi Arabia by UK since war in Yemen began. Retrieved from Campaign Against Arms Trade: https://www.caat.org.uk/media/press-releases/2017-11-08
News, B. (2018, August 21). UK can be ’21st Century exporting superpower’, says Liam Fox. Retrieved from BBC : https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-45255132
Security Council 8027th Meeting. (2017, August ). Retrieved from The UN: https://www.un.org/press/en/2017/sc12961.doc.htm
TRAINING TORTURERS: THE UK’s ROLE IN BAHRAIN’S BRUTAL CRACKDOWN ON DISSENT . (2018). Reprieve.
WFP. (2017). Fighting Famine. Retrieved from World Food Programme: https://www.wfp.org/news/news-release/wfp-scales-response-yemen-prevent-famine