For many parts of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, the UK’s bi-lateral relationship, often forged over centuries, has always meant more than its membership of the EU. Although there have been significant policy disagreements in the past – notably the Iraq war of 2003 – in recent times UK policy with its main EU partners, the so-called ‘E3’ including France and Germany, has either been fairly consensual, or the UK has steered clear of EU differences, as between Italy and France in Libya. I think the ‘E3’ partnership will continue to mean a great deal to the UK, and we will seek to act in concert as our broad aims remain similar, notably how to assist efforts for peace and mutual security in a region riven with conflicts.
In MENA itself, there is more than enough to be going on with than to worry about Brexit and how ‘Global Britain’ will fare. North Africa would like to see more UK trade, in itself and as a gateway to Africa generally, and traditional friends in the Levant and the Gulf will be keen to strike new trade deals rather than lament any break with the EU. That said, they will all recognise that the UK’s need to win such deals for domestic political purposes is a reasonable bargaining chip for them.
Perhaps more important for all in MENA will be to see how the continuing influence of the UK, the ‘E3’ and the wider European partnership works with MENA states to mitigate the significant crises which affect so many of them, none of which will be helped by heaping economic pressures onto populations already struggling desperately. Lebanon is an acute example, and the echoes of the so called ‘Arab Spring’ have not gone away. We know the economic impact of the virus is likely to be far greater and longer lasting than many hoped. This will stifle economies in states already struggling with rising numbers of young people looking for work, and economies too dependant on the public sector, insufficiently diversified, and no longer buoyed by the oil revenues which have transformed the region in two generations.
It is hard to select any particular crisis as more potentially hazardous than another, as all could spiral downwards further. At the centre of those, Iran and Saudi Arabia and its allies clash not just over generational disputed territorial hegemony in the region, but over the very heart of the Islamic faith itself. State destabilisation cannot continue to be the norm; sooner or later it will not be manageable. Yet there are parts of this issue into which the West cannot and should not insert itself, beyond a well-founded plea, born of past painful experience, for religious tolerance. The differing view of each other’s activities, of threat and counter-threat, pose a risk of physical conflict beyond boundaries, with massive potential destruction. I expect the UK to continue to work to descale this tension, to urge the US to refine its position on the JCPOA nuclear deal, whoever wins the Presidential election in November, and allow regional states of increasing significance to find a pathway through for all.
I also expect the UK to continue to work with the UN on all the areas of physical conflict in the region, for Yemen, Syria and Libya are now effectively proxy wars inflicting huge suffering on populations. None are as straightforward as they may look, and nor is the UK’s position, but they all reflect the truth that wars in the region now last longer than ever before, and the capacity for suffering is almost tragically infinite. If the UN peacemakers in each are not backed up by UN Security Council members for real, not just words, then none will end with any long-term solution which will not flare up in the future. There should be no re-engagement with Syria on Assad’s terms either by the UK or the EU.
I have never, for thirty years, believed that the issues between Israel and Palestine could simply be managed. The US, by effectively ending its position as a neutral broker on the issue, offered, perhaps unexpectedly and accidentally, an opportunity for others to become seriously re-engaged when the ‘deal of the century’ sparked such hostility – not least from Arab states which wish for a different relationship with Israel than their historical one, but not, judging by the rhetoric before the anticipated date of unilateral action by Israel this summer, at any price. The UK must maintain its position of supporting a two-state solution and urge both Israel and Palestinian representatives to re-open channels. I still fear, as does Nickolay Mladenov, the UN Special Representative, that sooner or later other more malign forces in the region will take advantage of the failures to resolve matters in the past.
I have omitted much, for reasons of space. The people of the region continue to deserve rather more than life has offered for too long, to live the sort of lives of culture, society, family security and opportunity we have long taken for granted. I hope the UK, despite the realities of difficult choices, will continue to do all that it can to work towards such an objective.