Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 12 December 2019

Britain's relations with the Gulf will be at stake in next month's general election

The role the UK plays on the world stage once the new government is formed will be up for debate on December 12

Jeremy Corbyn, left, and Boris Johnson, right, will face off next month in a general election. EPA  
Jeremy Corbyn, left, and Boris Johnson, right, will face off next month in a general election. EPA  

When Britons go to the polls next month to elect the country’s next prime minister, the outcome could have a profound effect on the UK’s relations with the Middle East for many years to come.

For the majority of voters in Britain, the contest is being seen as the Brexit election because, irrespective of who wins, the hope is that the outcome will finally break the political paralysis that has taken hold of the country as a result of the outgoing government’s failure to break the Brexit deadlock.

Thus, if Tory leader Boris Johnson can win sufficient seats to form the new government with his “get Brexit done” slogan forming the centrepiece of his campaign, then the expectation is that he will press ahead with the deal he has negotiated with the European Union to secure Britain’s exit by January 31 next year.

If, on the other hand, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn emerges victorious, either with Labour winning an outright majority or by forming a coalition with anti-Brexit parties such as the Liberal Democrats and the Scottish nationalists, the country can expect another prolonged period of Brexit debate, with the most likely outcome being Britain holding a second referendum on the troublesome issue of EU membership.

Yet while Brexit will remain a dominant feature of the campaign, there are many other issues up for debate, not least the role Britain will play on the world stage once the new government is formed.

And at a time when the Arab world is facing increased uncertainty as a result of the Trump administration’s confused policy towards the region, the outcome of the British election could have repercussions of its own.

In his four months as prime minister since replacing Theresa May, Mr Johnson has made significant strides towards demonstrating that, under his leadership, Britain would be far more proactive in its support of its traditional Arab allies.

It behoves pro-western regimes in the Arab world to take a close interest in the outcome of Britain’s general election

Prior to entering Downing Street, Mr Johnson established a warm personal friendship with Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and spent a week as a guest on his private yacht last summer. Since becoming prime minister, Mr Johnson has continued to maintain a close dialogue with Riyadh, and the Saudis can expect to continue to enjoy a constructive relationship with Westminster if Mr Johnson is returned to power.

Mr Johnson’s leadership has also benefited Britain’s Arab allies in the Gulf, which have seen a distinctive shift in Britain’s position with regard to Iran and the controversial nuclear deal. Throughout Mrs May’s three-year tenure, Britain remained committed to supporting the nuclear deal with Iran, in common with France and Germany, the other European signatories. Since Mr Johnson replaced her, Westminster has taken a more robust attitude towards Tehran and has now joined American-led efforts to improve security for Gulf shipping, a move seen as hardening Britain’s position, while other European countries have declined to take part, fearing that to do so might jeopardise their chances of salvaging the deal.

Mr Corbyn’s political approach to the Middle East, by contrast, appears to be almost the complete opposite of Mr Johnson’s. His sympathies have consistently veered towards Tehran, so much so that, prior to him becoming Labour leader, he was a regular contributor to Press TV, the Iranian-run propaganda channel, and his appearances – for which he was paid £20,000 – continued until the channel was banned by British regulators for its part in filming the detention and torture of an Iranian journalist. Mr Corbyn ever apologised for his association with the broadcaster, claiming his appearances over three years allowed him to raise “a number of important human rights issues”.

Another example of Mr Corbyn’s apparent pro-Iranian bias can be seen in his frequent public association with members of Hezbollah, a movement widely regarded as a terrorist organisation. In a speech made to the Stop the War Coalition, he called members of Hezbollah and Hamas, both Iranian proxies, "friends". If Mr Corbyn were to succeed in his goal of becoming prime minister at the next election, there is a risk Britain would adopt a far more sympathetic approach to Tehran, with all the implications that would have for Gulf security.

The close links Mr Corbyn enjoys with groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas is another reason why Gulf states should be concerned by the prospect of him winning the election. As with Hezbollah, Mr Corbyn has been photographed on a number of occasions with leaders of Hamas, which is also designated a terrorist organisation.

Mr Corbyn also has a long track record of openly criticising Gulf countries, such as Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, which enjoy close relations with Britain. During the anti-government protests in Bahrain in 2011, Mr Corbyn concentrated his criticism against the Bahraini government, even though many of the protests were orchestrated by Tehran. And he has consistently called for Britain to discontinue arms sales to Riyadh, even though they are deemed vital to the Saudis’ efforts to defend themselves against unprovoked acts of Iranian aggression.

These are just a few reasons why it behoves pro-western regimes in the Arab world to take a close interest in the outcome of Britain’s general election. For while a Johnson victory is likely to herald a new era of closer ties and co-operation, a success for Mr Corbyn could jeopardise Britain’s friendly relations with the region.

Con Coughlin is the Telegraph’s defence and foreign affairs editor

Updated: November 14, 2019 09:38 PM

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