Potential Challenges and Outcomes of Brexit: Relations Between the UK, the GCC and Iran

‘Global Britain’

Following a general election, the British Parliament ratified the proposed withdrawal agreement, and the United Kingdom (UK) left the European Union (EU) on 31 January 2020. This article acknowledges that Britain’s international standing will certainly be damaged immediately post-Brexit, but intends to offer some potentially positive outcomes in the long-term. If we accept the future of Britain’s policies under the idea of a ‘Global Britain’, which the UK’s policy-makers and state stakeholders expect post-Brexit UK to be based on, then advocates of the idea of ‘Global Britain’ suggest that Global Britain is about linking with ‘old friends and new allies’[1], in order to find ‘a new place for itself in the world’[2] outside of the EU. This view is supported with the argument that Britain’s international standing has never been dependent on EU membership. Britain’s policies have been based on three main bridges through its relationships with the US, the EU, and the rest of the world[3].

The idea of Global Britain has received criticism at home and abroad. For example, Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee stated that ‘Global Britain’ is at risk of being simply a ‘slogan’ devoid of ‘substance’[4]. A UN report also states that ‘there is still no clarity on what Global Britain might mean, even from a UK perspective’[5]. Considering the scepticism of the idea of Global Britain, it seems it is important to acknowledge that, along with the Brexit process, the future perspectives of Britain foreign policies under a Global Britain agenda are also in progress and it might take time to identifying clear strategies for cooperation. At the same time, along with the challenges, the idea of Global Britain also provides a number of opportunities for the UK to develop relations with the rest of the world, specifically with states in the Middle East. For this reason, I hope to consider the future of Britain’s policies under the idea of Global Britain. Specifically, possible challenges and opportunities in relations between the UK, the GCC and Iran will be in focus.

Post-Brexit UK – EU Relations

The first question, or challenge, for a post-Brexit UK is connected to its future cooperation with EU member states. Given that Britain might lose institutional links with the EU post-Brexit, the question arises of how Britain can build, or renew, links to key partners in Europe such as France and Germany in the next 20-30 years. Addressing these, one might expect Britain to engage with so-called ‘informal groupings of countries’[6]. Despite expectations during the acceptance of the Lisbon Treaty in 2009, that establishment of a High Representative for Foreign Affairs and security Policy, together with the European External Action Service (EEAS)[7], might assist further coherence in EU foreign policy. In reality, the EU shifts from a single community of practice[8] to ad hoc groupings, which are smaller, informal groupings, known as ‘the like-minded’. These ad hoc groupings are examples of ‘soft alliance’ with no formal contract, no decision-making procedure, and no enforcing mechanisms. However, they work through mechanisms of exclusion and inclusion, coordination and knowledge exchange. Despite their informality in the EU, their importance has grown, and these states and their collaborations have been involved in the so-called Middle East Peace Process (MEPP)[9]. Additionally, an informal grouping of countries also can appear between EU member states and other countries to tackle specific subjects. Countries might be united within an informal grouping, however these ‘partners’ might not have deep and close diplomatic relations with each other.[10] An example of such informal grouping is the E3+3, where Russia and China partnered with the United States and European nations (France, the UK, Germany), while the UN led the negotiations.[11]

Using this as a model for such cooperation, Britain might choose to deal with climate change issues in the Middle East, especially in the Arab region. The region is characterised by a fragile desert environment,[12] which is among the most vulnerable to potential climate change. The Gulf states face a number of climate change challenges, such as desertification, water scarcity, biodiversity loss and sea level growth.[13] The recent trends on climate change in the region are alarming: the annual warming is increasing in the Arabian Peninsula, such as between 1980-2008, in Oman up to 1.03oC, up to 0.81oC in the UAE, and up to 0.65oC in Qatar.[14] Importantly, the economy of GCC states, as rentier states[15], mainly relies on oil export revenues. As such, the GCC states are highly vulnerable to the adverse effects of climate change.[16] Thus economic diversification strategies form one of the recommendations for the GCC states’ climate change mitigation. As Britain’s security is dependent upon Gulf security[17], Britain can also become active in developing such informal groups with other European states, especially its key partners France and Germany. These groupings can collaborate with the GCC states to deal with this challenge. Opportunities for closer involvement in the GCC diversification strategies as the part of the climate change initiatives might occur for ‘soft’ alliances between the UK and other European states. In other words, post-Brexit Britain may leave the EU, but not Europe. Therefore, post-Brexit Britain still might develop European foreign policies based on informal groupings.

Post-Brexit UK – US Relations

While a part of the European Union, Britain was a bridge between the EU and the US. Post-Brexit Britain expects to be closer to its traditional ally – Washington. While it is uncertain what this partnership might look like, among expectations are a possibility of the US-UK trade and investment collaboration.[18] With regard to the Middle East, especially towards the Gulf, it seems the US and the UK are already developing ‘special’ relationships. The UK even became involved in the Crisis in 2019, which started with the US withdrawal from the Iran’s nuclear deal, which led to tensions between the US and Iran. This has continued with Trump administration-imposed sanctions to undermine the Iranian economy, while Tehran has taken a variety of steps to scale back commitments given in the 2015.[19] When the US accused Iran of detaining the crew of one of two oil tankers attacked in the Gulf of Oman in June 2019,[20] and US also blamed Iran for drone strikes on Saudi oil facilities in September 2019[21], both accusations were, notably, also supported by the UK government.[22] The UK has been involved even further, following US officials policy of ‘maximum pressure’ on Iran.[23] An Iranian oil tanker was captured by the UK’s Royal Marines in the Strait of Gibraltar under the claims that it was shipping oil to Syria in violation of European Union sanctions in August 2019. In response, a UK-flagged oil tanker was held by Iran in September 2019.[24] Moreover, on 3 January 2020, the commander of the Quds force of the Revolutionary Guards Corps Qassem Suleimani was killed by a US air strike in Iraq.[25] The foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, stated that the UK was ‘on the same page’ as the US in regard to assassination of the Iranian general Qassem Suleimani in January 2020.[26]

On the one hand, such a ‘special’ partnership with Washington suggests that the post-Brexit UK will have a close partnership with a global power. Even despite speculations that the US-UK alliance will be under challenge over if there is a change of leadership in the US in the next elections, the historical relations and that the UK, while being in the EU, served a bridge between the US and Europe, indicates that relations will still be close in the future. At the same time, it provides challenges; due to this ‘special’ partnership, the UK expects to always play a role in tensions or conflicts with US opponents in the region, especially Iran. In other words, the challenge of post-Brexit Britain is that it will adapt its policies mainly in order to follow Washington’s objectives in the region.

Post-Brexit UK and the rest of the World

This might suggest even closer relations with its historical traditional allies – the GCC states. As the third part of the Global Britain strategy, such as a post-Brexit Britain deal with the rest of the world, the UK might further develop relations with the Gulf states. The first possibility is that the UK will conclude a free trade deal with the GCC states.[27] The working group was already established in December 2016, based on the Singapore-GCC trade deal as an example of such a future pattern. Though it ‘made good progress’,[28] the talks were paused due to the Gulf Crisis of 2017. Predictions of a fall in the value of the British pound, can be another possibility for closer cooperation. It will provide the GCC dollar-pegged investors to purchase commercial properties to take advantage from a ‘Brexit discount’.[29] Moreover, the GCC diversification programmes provide opportunities for further cooperation for the post-Brexit UK, such as Saudi Vision 2030. As part of the realisation of Saudi Vision 2030, contracts for partnership in several fields have already been concluded. These include Standard Chartered being granted a banking license in Saudi Arabia and Alderley winning a $10 million Saudi Aramco contract for the in-Kingdom design and manufacture of modular skids.[30]

Challenges remain though, such as rising political opposition to the sale of UK armed equipment to Saudi Arabia for use in Yemen. For example, in June 2019, the UK Court of Appeals ruled that these specific arms sales are unlawful because there is ‘clear risk’ as these weapons can be in ‘serious violation of international humanitarian law’.[31] Additionally, with the rise of other powers, especially from Asia, and uncertainty of the British place on the global map, there are challenges for a post-Brexit UK to keep these close relations with the GCC states. As part of the diversification the GCC relations with the rest of the world based on interests, David Wearing also clarifies that because China is set to become the largest gas and oil importer by 2020, and India the second-largest by 2035, there may be a general recalibration away from Europe, towards states where there is a greater and growing energy demand.[32]

[1] “The government’s negotiating objectives for exiting the EU: PM speech”, Gov.UK, accessed November 24, 2019, https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/the-governments-negotiating-objectives-for-exiting-the-eu-pm-speech
[2] Josh May, “David David’s speech to Conservative conference’, PoliticsHome, October 2, 2016, accessed November 24, 2019, https://www.politicshome.com/news/uk/political-parties/conservative-party/news/79518/read-full-david-davis-speech-conservative
[3] RUSI, “The UK in the Middle East: Strategy in a Changing Region”, July 2, 2019, accessed November 24, 2019, https://www.politicshome.com/news/uk/political-parties/conservative-party/news/79518/read-full-david-davis-speech-conservative.
[4] House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee Global Britain, “Sixth Report of Session 2017-19”, accessed November 24, 2019, https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201719/cmselect/cmfaff/780/780.pdf
[5] Jess Gifkins, Samuel Jarvis and Jason Ralph, “Global Britain in the United Nations”, accessed November 24, 2019, https://www.una.org.uk/file/13085/download?token=cl0pgYF-
[6] RUSI, “The UK in the Middle East: Strategy in a Changing Region”.
[7] Official EU Website, “About the European External Action Service (EEAS), March 2, 2016, accessed November 24, 2019, https://eeas.europa.eu/headquarters/headquarters-homepage/82/about-european-external-action-service-eeas_en
[8] Federica Bicchi, “The EU as a community of practice: foreign policy communications in the COREU network”, 21 November 2011, Journal of European Public Policy 18, no. 8, https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/13501763.2011.615200?journalCode=rjpp20
[9] Federica Bicchi and Lisbeth Aggestam, “How informal groupings of like-minded states are coming to dominate EU foreign policy governance”, August 7, 2019, https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/europpblog/2019/08/07/how-informal-groupings-of-like-minded-states-are-coming-to-dominate-eu-foreign-policy-governance/
[10] RUSI, “The UK in the Middle East: Strategy in a Changing Region”.
[11] Joshua Keating, ”You say P5+1, I say E3+3”, September 20, 2009, https://foreignpolicy.com/2009/09/30/you-say-p51-i-say-e33/
[12] Mostafa K., Tolba and Najib W., Saab, “Arab Environment: Impact of Climate Change on Arab Countries” Report of the Arab Forum for Environment and Development, 2009, http://www.droughtmanagement.info/literature/AFED_climate_change_arab _countries_2009.pdf.
[13] Tariq Al-Olaimy, “Climate Change Impacts in GCC.” EcoMENA Echoing Sustainability in MENA, May 29, 2018, https://www.ecomena.org/climate-change-gcc/
[14] Said AlSarmi and Richard Washington, “Recent Observed Climate Change over the Arabian Peninsula”, Journal of Geophysical Research: Atmospheres 116, D11 (2011)
[15] A rentier state is a state in which a large proportion of income is generated from rents (specifically from oil and gas revenues) or externally-derived, unproductively-earned payments.
[16] Aisha Al-Sarihi, “Prospects for climate change integration into the GCC economic diversification strategies”, LSE Middle East Centre Paper Series, http://eprints.lse.ac.uk/86873/1/Al-Sarihi_Prospects%20for%20climate%20change_2018.pdf
[17] Ibid.
[18] “EU foresees a US-UK axis after Brexit”, Financial Times, accessed November 24, 2019, https://www.ft.com/content/e9fb41e6-dad1-11e9-8f9b-77216ebe1f17
[19] “US-Iran standoff: A timeline of key events”, Al Jazeera, 25 September 2019, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2019/06/iran-standoff-timeline-key-events-190622063937627.html
[20] Patrick Wintour, “UK joins USS in accusing Iran of tanker attacks as crew held,” 14 January 2019,  https://www.google.com/search?client=safari&rls=en&q=Us+accussed+Iran+to+attcak+tankers&ie=UTF-8&oe=UTF-8
[21] “Saudi oil attacks: US blames Iran for drone strikes on two sites”, BBC News, accessed 15 September 2019,   https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-49705197
[22] “Johnson blames Iran for Saudi Arabia oil attacks”, BBC News, accessed 23 September 2019,  https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-49792997
[23] Borzou Daragahi, “British ship seized by Iran free to leave, official says”, 23 September 2019,  https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/british-ship-iran-seized-us-tanker-latest-a9116561.html
[24] Ibid.
[25] “Qasem Soleimani: US kills top Iranian general in Baghdad air strike”, BBC News, accessed 3 January, 2020, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-50979463
[26] “Boris Johnson: Qassem Suleimani was threat to all our interests”, The Guardian, accessed 5 January, 2020,  https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2020/jan/05/boris-johnson-qassem-suleimani-was-threat-to-all-our-interests-lament-death
[27] Noor Naji and Damien McElroy, “Post-Brexit talks between UK-GCC to resume ‘soon’, says minister”, accessed 16 May 2018, https://www.thenational.ae/world/europe/post-brexit-trade-talks-between-uk-gcc-to-resume-soon-says-minister-1.731161
[28] Ibid.
[29] Patrick Gearon, “GCC opportunities in a post-Brexit Britain”, 21 September, 2016, https://www.gulf-times.com/story/514576/GCC-opportunities-in-a-post-Brexit-Britain
[30] “UK companies to benefit from UK-Saudi trade”, Gov.UK, accessed 5 January, 2020, https://www.gov.uk/government/news/uk-companies-to-benefit-from-uk-saudi-trade
[31] “UK arms sales to Saudi Arabia unlawful, court rules,” BBC News, accessed 20 June 2019, https”//www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-48704596 
[32] Burhan Wazir, “How the Gulf’s petrodollars lubricate the British economy.”  September 12, 2018, https://www.newstatesman.com/AngloArabia-Why -Gulf-Wealth-Matters-Briatin-David-Wearing

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