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UK elections and the future of Mideast relations

The choice of the British public will be watched closely far beyond the UK

H.A. Hellyer

Published: Updated:

The UK election was first and foremost a British one, of course. The debates that led to the first majority Conservative government since 1997’s landslide Labour win were primarily about national issues; domestic concerns, as well as the UK’s future in the European Union. But the choice of the British public, at least as expressed through the vagaries of the UK’s electoral “first past the post” system, will be watched closely far beyond the UK. This includes the Arab world, where the previous coalition government of David Cameron and Nick Clegg certainly played a substantial role. The question will now be – without a Liberal Democrat partner - how might a purely Conservative Party government approach the Arab world?

This wasn’t an election remotely about foreign policy – which in itself is quite significant. The UK has engaged forcefully abroad, including in the Arab world, over the past five years of coalition government. In Libya, Britain supported NATO’s action against Libya’s Qaddafi in 2011, backing the revolutionaries and protecting Benghazi. In Syria, the British prime minister attempted to win a vote to intervene against Bashar al-Assad when he was accused of using chemical weapons against his own people (Cameron lost the vote, as Labour vigorously opposed). The rise of a more intense form of radical Islamism in the form of ISIS in Iraq and Syria happened during this past Parliament – and on a related issue, the discussion around the “Islamist Issue” has troubled relations between London and a number of Arab capitals.

In a broad strategic sense, Downing Street has no appetite for much in the way of change

H.A. Hellyer

Moreover, the imminent U.S. deal with Iran on the one hand has the potential to be a seismic shift in the region, while a deeply right wing government in Israel has ramifications for the settlement of the Palestinian question. All of those issues now face Cameron’s government.

No appetite for change

In a broad strategic sense, Downing Street has no appetite for much in the way of change. Those hoping that the UK would make civil society promotion in the Arab world a strategic foreign policy priority, or would redefine relationships in the region on the basis of a deeper commitment to comprehensive development and human security, including human rights, should not hold their breath. With the backdrop of challenges at home, radical change would have been unlikely even without instability as well as security challenges in the region. Whether radical change in terms of approaching the region is needed or not at this point in its history is immaterial – it just won’t be happening.

But in spite of the natural priorities of this next government that will focus it domestically, there will be some issues that are likely to force Mr Cameron’s hand. On Libya, the tragic deaths of thousands of migrants fleeing North Africa to Europe will not stop anytime soon, and the spread of ISIS elements in Libya is hardly something the UK will be able to ignore. The standard line at present in Whitehall is that the U.N.’s peace negotiations between the internationally recognised government in the east of the country, and their opponents in the west, must be supported. That is a decent policy to champion – but that plan may also not succeed. In that eventuality, a ‘Plan B’, which precious few in Europe are contemplating, will have to be applied. Whether London wants to be involved in constructing or supporting that ‘Plan B’ or not, particularly after the Libyan quagmire has become more difficult, it may not have much choice in the matter. What that ‘Plan B’ might be is still unclear – if anyone is seriously considering a good one.

Vigorously flawed experiment

The end of one democratic, if vigorously flawed, experiment in the Arab world’s largest country has had a number of unexpected side effects. Less than a year after the military removal of Islamist president Mohammad Mursi in Egypt, the prime minister’s office ordered a review into the Muslim Brotherhood – not simply in the UK, but worldwide. That review was never going to be published in full – but the release of even the top-level findings has been delayed for months. The review is of particular interest to Abu Dhabi in the Gulf region – less so now to Riyadh after the ascension of King Salman. It is entirely likely that in the weeks ahead, the reappointed Home Secretary Theresa May will be releasing the long awaited “Extremism Strategy,” which pertains purely to the UK.

Alongside it, however, is probably going to be the summary of whatever is going to be released from the Muslim Brotherhood review – and the results, as well as the actual release itself, are likely to make no-one very happy, for different reasons.

The Brotherhood won’t be proscribed as a terrorist group – but it won’t be characterised as some kind of pluralistic and democratic one either. Those who were pleased the review didn’t come out during the Coalition government’s tenure may wish otherwise now – if anything, the absence of a Liberal Democrat partner, and the more prominent position of more right-wing figures like Michael Gove in the Cabinet, could indicate a tougher approach. We’ll have to wait and see. In any case, however, pro-Islamist organisations both domestically and abroad will find themselves with even less sympathy in Whitehall – and the repercussions of a deepening “anti-extremism” frame for policy will not be merely superficial on the domestic front, as well as the international front.

There might have been hopes that due to the rigorous stance of Sir Alan Duncan over Israeli settlements in the occupied Palestinian Territories, a Tory government might be more forceful in pushing for a just and comprehensive solution to the Palestinian question. That seems unlikely, even though Israel’s new government will find it more difficult to engage with not only London, but most European capitals. The inclusion of some of the most right wing elements in the Israeli political spectrum in the Israeli cabinet hasn’t gone unnoticed in Whitehall – and when the dust settles in announcing the full line-ups of both cabinets, it will be interesting to see how cold the relationship between Cameron and the Israeli prime minister will be. None of that, however, is necessarily good news for the Palestinians – because they’re not likely to find a friend in Whitehall either, despite Duncan’s views.

Cameron’s solidification of power

Another population in the Arab world that might hope Cameron’s solidification of power works in their favour will be the Syrian opposition – an opposition that saw Cameron try to strike Bashar al-Assad’s forces directly in 2013, but fail to win the vote in the House of Commons against much opposition from outside of the Conservatives’ ranks. Certainly, there is much sympathy for the rebels against Assad in the Conservative Party – the question is whether that will cause the Conservatives to take a more comprehensive view as to a solution in Syria, or be primarily motivated by efforts to stem ISIS. The two are not equivalent.

Finally, the Iran deal – as mentioned - is potentially tectonic in its repercussions for how the international order in this region actually functions. On this, precious few resources have been expended in truly trying to understand what the Iran deal may mean, away from the excessive fear-mongering about Iran on the one side, and complete naiveté about Teheran’s ambitions on the other. During this parliament, Cameron and the Tories can hardly avoid being brought into a heated discussion with Britain’s historical GCC allies about the impact of Iran in the years to come – and most GCC capitals have strong relations with London already. Will London encourage the GCC to think more strategically about the future, in a region where Iran is here to stay? Will it offer a renewed commitment to have Assad removed from power? None of that is clear at present but London will probably have to show how serious it is on those files fairly soon.

In the minds of most in Whitehall, the next five years is first and foremost about the UK, and its future both as a European country, and united one. Inevitably, though, the issues of the Arab world will come on the agenda for London to consider and at the moment, there are far more questions than there are answers.

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Dr. H.A. Hellyer, non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institution, the Royal United Services Institute, and the Harvard University Kennedy School, previously held senior posts at Gallup and Warwick University. Follow him on Twitter at @hahellyer.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.