Britain has long been an ally but many Arab leaders are questioning whether it still has a role to play in resolving regional issues
Theresa May's regional visit is about boosting British trade ties in the wake of Brexit
British prime minister Theresa May will not be the only one who sees her latest visit to the Middle East as a welcome break from the seemingly endless obsession of Britain’s ruling elite with the Brexit negotiations. There will be many Arab leaders, too, who see the British leader’s return to the region as a positive re-engagement with a part of the world that is going through one of the most turbulent and challenging periods in its modern history.
For the majority of the Gulf states, as well as other similarly moderate Arab states like Jordan and Egypt, Britain has long been regarded as an important and valued ally. But the recent political turbulence in Britain, together with the demands of the Brexit negotiations, have made many Arab leaders question whether the country still has a role to play in resolving regional issues.
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During David Cameron’s tenure there were, it is true, some modest steps taken to strengthen regional ties, with Whitehall officials speaking of a “return east of Suez” policy that sought to re-establish some of the influence it lost in the region following its withdrawal in the early 1970s. One of the few tangible manifestations of this new approach was the building of the Royal Navy’s new base in Bahrain.
The British military has also been involved in the successful US-led coalition effort to defeat ISIL. But lingering doubts remain about the seriousness of Britain’s diplomatic investment in the Middle East, a concern among Arab leaders that intensified following parliament’s decision to veto Mr Cameron’s attempts to launch military action in 2013 against the Bashar Al Assad regime over its use of chemical weapons against rebel forces in Syria.
More recently leaders of the quartet of Arab states (Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt) have been unhappy with the British government’s ambivalent attitude to the diplomatic stand-off with Qatar, with British officials being accused of turning a blind eye to Doha’s support for Islamist extremists and groups like the Muslim Brotherhood.
Mrs May’s visit to the region, therefore, provides an opportunity for Britain to reassert its commitment to the region and demonstrate that it is serious about maintaining its relationships with moderate, pro-western Arab governments, many of which date back decades.
The most obvious purpose of the British prime minister’s latest diplomatic venture to the region is to boost British trade ties in the wake of Brexit. It is for this reason that she will declare her support for the economic reforms taking place in Jordan and Saudi Arabia.
The most obvious new opportunities afforded to British business are likely to be those coming from Saudi Arabia’s ambitious Vision 2030 programme, whereby the country’s dynamic Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman intends to undertake a radical transformation of the Saudi economy. Using the funds generated by the upcoming sale of Aramco shares, the crown prince aims to diversify the country’s economy away from its traditional dependence on oil revenues, as well as push an ambitious social reform agenda.
But while the British government is understandably fixated on developing new trade ties with the region, it must also understand that such new agreements are unlikely to be forthcoming unless Britain is also prepared to engage fully on challenging regional security issues as well.
Top of the list is how to deal with ISIL following its defeat in Raqqa and Mosul and the political destabilisation caused by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards’ continued meddling in the affairs of pro-western Arab states.
As Mrs May will have learnt from her brief stopover in Iraq, where she met British troops and visited Iraqi prime minister Haider Al Abadi, the recapture of Mosul and ISIL’s crushing military defeats in other parts of the Arab world do not mean the threat posed by Islamist-inspired terrorism is at an end.
On the contrary, as last weekend’s devastating attack on a Sufi mosque in Egypt’s northern Sinai region has shown, the group will simply change tactics and concentrate more on carrying out terror attacks than trying to maintain its self-proclaimed caliphate.
And on this score, ISIL will pose just as much of a threat to western countries like Britain, as ISIL terrorists look for new targets to attack, as to the Middle East. It is therefore essential that Britain and its allies in the region continue to work closely together on bilateral issues such as intelligence-sharing.
The other issue where Britain needs to show its support for moderate Arab states is on the vexed matter of Iran’s attempts to destabilise the region. During the prime minister’s meeting with King Salman and Prince Mohammed in Saudi Arabia on Wednesday, Mrs May was under pressure to raise the issue of Yemen, where the Saudi-led coalition blockaded air, land and sea access for several weeks to stop a flow of arms to Houthi rebels from Iran. Aid agencies said the blockade had worsened the humanitarian crisis in which an estimated seven million Yemenis are said to be at risk of malnutrition.
But it is also important that Britain holds Iran to account for the disaster in Yemen as, had it not been for Tehran’s support for the Houthi rebels, the conflict could well have been avoided in the first place.
For it is the Iranian regime, and not moderate Arab states, that is responsible for much of the discord currently affecting the region. And if Mrs May can show she grasps this fundamental point, then there is no reason why Britain cannot enjoy better and more profitable relations with its traditional allies in the region.
Con Coughlin is the Daily Telegraph’s defence and foreign affairs editor