The population of London, its politicians, officials, financiers and bankers, and its corporate leaders, were stunned by the popular vote in favor of “Brexit”, that is, public support for the UK to snap its economic and political links with the European Union (EU).
Prime Minister David Cameron had rather indiscreetly initiated the referendum and then had not done enough to win the vote. He quickly resigned and handed the baton to Theresa May in July to steer the country out of the EU and shape a new role for Britain in world affairs, focusing on the opportunities thrown up by the debacle rather than the challenges that suffuse the island nation.
May has been upbeat from the outset, speaking of a “new global role” for the UK, without the limits placed on it by its membership of a continental union where it was not necessarily the most influential or even the most congenial member. In her first weeks, she embarked on a “diplomatic blitz”, interacting with EU leaders in an attempt to obtain the best arrangements the UK could obtain from the untidy mess, wanting access to a single market but with restrictions on migration, a tall order in the view of several European commentators.
And, then, she has engaged with UK’s major economic partners. Not surprisingly, these first interactions have been with countries with which the UK had forged close ties during the colonial era. Thus, she was in India in November, recalling earlier relations and defining new ties.
The region calls for “clear-eyed” statesmanship and leadership: UK, with its eyes fixed on economic advantage, is hardly in a position to contribute positively in this regardTalmiz Ahmad
The visit to Bahrain to meet Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) leaders on 6-7 December was the logical next step. The UK had been the hegemonic power in the region for nearly 200 years, dominating the region’s politics, economics, military and even education and culture. And, as it withdrew from the most of the region “east of Suez” from the late 1960s, UK also defined the national borders of the Gulf countries, set up new governmental structures, retained a role in the defense of the region, and generally steered the new nations into the complex realities of late 20th century regional and global affairs.
But, as British power declined and its global role diminished, the UK began to prioritize its role in the EU, and left the responsibility for regional security to the US. Sadly, the sophisticated rapier was replaced by a harsh bludgeon: US military interventions, rarely thought through or planned for the day after, have left the region shattered, deeply divided, and prey to the scourges of sectarianism and extremism.
Threads of relationship
In her first visit to the Gulf, May met the leaders of the GCC in Bahrain at dinner and then addressed the GCC Summit. May’s agenda was to pick up the threads of the relationship that ended about 45 years ago and impart to it a new resonance and validity in light of prevailing challenges. Thus, on arrival, May recalled the “longstanding and very good relations” the UK had had with the countries in the region and promised to build on them for mutual benefit: “Gulf security is our security, Gulf prosperity is our prosperity”, she asserted. She noted that the GCC countries were collectively the biggest investors in the UK and the second biggest non-European export market.
Prime Minister May’s principal interest was the boosting of economic ties: UK media mentioned the UK pursuing deals of about GBP 30 billion, covering energy, education, infrastructure, healthcare and even space technology, and obtaining GCC investment for the rejuvenation of rundown urban centers across the UK. She also announced that UK would participate in Dubai’s EXPO-2020 event, even as a UK-GCC joint working group has been setup to fine-tune the contours of post-Brexit trade ties.
But, given the conflicts and instability in the region, political issues were uppermost in the minds of her GCC interlocutors. An interviewer reminded her that the UK had turned its back on the region in 1971 and wanted to know what message she now had for GCC leaders, given that Iran, in the GCC view, was “interfering” in the affairs of the GCC countries.
Iran’s ‘malign activities’
May categorically stated that the UK was “clear-eyed” about Iran’s “malign activities” and, after the Iranian nuclear weapons program had been terminated with the P5+1 agreement, it was now necessary to check Iran’s “malign activities” in “other areas”. She reminded the interviewer that the UK had a security partnership with the GCC countries but not with Iran, and that the UK would be setting up its permanent military presence in the Gulf by stationing its warships at a base in Bahrain. According to British reports, the UK will maintain about 1,500 military personnel in the Gulf and spend about GBP 3 billion on Gulf defense annually.
May echoed these views in her remarks at the GCC Summit when she promised British help “to push back against Iran’s aggressive regional actions”. The UK-GCC joint statement pledged that the two sides would “oppose and will work together to counter Iran’s destructive activities”.
Clearly, May needed to take a tough pro-GCC position on the Iran question if she wishes to sew up the economic deals she desperately needs after the Brexit setback. But, she will find in time that the regional security issues are complex and cannot be addressed through rhetoric, however easily it might flow. For, the region needs to find answers to the ongoing bitter and destructive conflicts in Syria and Yemen. Regional stability demands that Iraq and Lebanon be shaped into unified entities that accommodate multi-ethnic and multi-cultural values.
The Iranian foreign office, on its part, described May’s remarks as “irresponsible, provocative and divisive”. The region calls for “clear-eyed” statesmanship and leadership: UK, with its eyes fixed on economic advantage, is hardly in a position to contribute positively in this regard.
Talmiz Ahmad is the former Indian Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Oman and the UAE.