With May in charge, core British positions on Middle East unlikely to shift

Theresa May faces a divided party, a divided nation and a divided continent

Chris Doyle
Chris Doyle
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The 13th British Prime Minister of Queen Elizabeth II’s reign will be her second female premier, Theresa May. The challenges in front of her are daunting; weaker souls might perish. She faces a divided party, a divided nation and a divided continent.

How she handles all three will define her time in office. How her foreign policy will develop will also be a reflection of the above.

Uniting her party will take time. She will attempt to drag the party to sign up to a common vision of the relationship with the European Union as the basis of the divorce talks when Article 50 is triggered. She is clear that Brexit means Brexit but beyond that, the Conservative Party let alone the country has no shared vision at all.

Will Britain push to be a part of the single market, adopt a Norwegian model or have some advanced association agreement? She will need to win over the country preferably for her without going to a general election too early but she has the thinnest of majorities in Parliament of just 16. She will have to handle Scotland which may seek to push again for its independence in order to stay in the EU.

Circumstances will likely define May more as a pragmatist than ideologue. Those who know May consider her to be an extraordinarily tough negotiator. She will need to be in negotiations with the EU. As one state against 26, Britain will need negotiators who master their brief.

Theresa May will need to win over the country preferably for her without going to a general election too early but she has the thinnest of majorities in Parliament of just 16

Chris Doyle

‘Showman Boris’

This will probably not be the new Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, arch showman, the colour and flair to May’s more managerial leadership. Harshly, perhaps some compared it to the Roman Emperor Caligula making his horse a senator. Johnson’s Foreign Secretary role is denuded of dealing with Brexit but also international trade, the two signature international issues.

Despite the understandable ridicule and shock, maybe it is a cannier choice than some believe. Johnson was the de facto leader of the leave campaign, a liability, gaffe-prone but still someone with a fan base. The Prime Minister may encourage his overseas visits as a rival being out of the way. In some quarters, he could be an ideal Ambassador for the UK.

So perhaps it is David Davis, the main in charge of the remarkably titled new Ministry for Exiting the European Union, who should be watched more closely.

The EU will dominate the agenda and govern Britain’s global relations going forward. How close a relationship Britain develops with the union will impact its other relationships. Many who pushed to leave (May was a reluctant remain campaigner) painted a picture of a glorious new open trading relations with the world.

This may not be a total pipe dream but is still a far off reality. To bring this about simultaneous efforts will be required to build these up not least in Asia. The government is already taking on additional negotiators, and no surprise, many of them are non-British.

Trade, immigration and security are the priorities. Trade simply to offset any losses in markets by leaving the EU. Control of immigration was the defining issue of the referendum campaign and many expect results.

Signals of how Theresa May sees the world and what her Middle East approach will be are very few. This is because as has become the political norm for a new leader in whatever party to lack in foreign affairs expertise. David Cameron had little experience nor did Tony Blair or Gordon Brown.

Boris Johnson has though annoyed the Turks (despite being part Turkish) over his insulting poem about Erdogan, and Palestinians over his colorful opposition to those who back Boycott Divestment and Sanctions against Israel.

Internationalist approach?

The betting is that May and Johnson will reject a narrow nationalist approach for an internationalist one, not least because of the economy. The referendum highlighted this inward looking part of Britain that dismisses concerns of the outside world, that rails against Britain honouring its commitment to 0.7 percent of GDP to international aid, that objects to overseas military adventurism on the grounds that funds should be spent in Britain.

May was the longest serving Home Secretary in modern times with a tough approach on the issue of immigration and anti-terrorism legislation. Her relations with British Muslim communities will be challenging not least after the cack-handed Prevent strategy she trumpeted that saw toddlers being spied upon for signs of extremism.

The trade-first approach means human rights will longer take a back seat but be put in the trunk. May has called for Britain to leave the European Convention on Human Rights even if later she changed her position.

Regarding war, May voted for war in 2003 against Iraq as well as Libya in 2011, Syria in 2013, and against ISIS in 2014 and 2015. She is unlikely pull out of the anti-ISIS coalition.

May is unlikely to countenance major foreign policy initiatives beyond Brexit although this might frustrate Johnson. It will business as usual but not beyond. Traditional allies starting with the United States, NATO partners and the Gulf will be reassured. May will be desperate to build a strong relationship with an incoming President Clinton if she wins, but how interested Clinton will be in Britain?

Core British positions on the Middle East are unlikely to shift. Do not expect more London conferences on Syria or Britain to lead on fresh moves on Israel-Palestine. Yet we live in an unpredictable world and unforeseen events will no doubt rock May’s Premiership not just Boris Johnson’s unique brand of diplomacy.
Chris Doyle is the director of CAABU (the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding). He has worked with the Council since 1993 after graduating with a first class honors degree in Arabic and Islamic Studies at Exeter University. As the lead spokesperson for Caabu and as an acknowledged expert on the region, Chris is a frequent commentator on TV and Radio, having given over 148 interviews on the Arab world in in 2012 alone. He gives numerous talks around the country on issues such as the Arab Spring, Libya, Syria, Palestine, Iraq, Islamophobia and the Arabs in Britain. He has had numerous articles and letters published in the British and international media. He has travelled to nearly every country in the Middle East. He has organized and accompanied numerous British Parliamentary delegations to Arab countries. Most recently he took Parliamentary delegations to the West Bank in April, November, December 2013 and January 2014 including with former British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw. He tweets @Doylech.

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