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An ashen-faced David Dimbleby announced in the early hours of 24 June 2016 that “the British people have spoken, and we are out”. The veteran BBC presenter was referring to Britain’s vote to leave the European Union (EU), the so-called ‘Brexit’. Just hours after the referendum’s final results had come in, Prime Minister David Cameron announced his resignation, leaving Britain and the world in a state of confusion as to what this all meant. Brexit it was going to be, but how, when and under what conditions was completely unclear.
Six months later, few things have become any clearer. The government has yet to ‘trigger’ Britain’s formal departure from the EU. So, for the moment, speculation is rife about what exactly Brexit will mean.
Cameron’s replacement, Theresa May, finally clarified in a speech on 17 January 2017 that the British government is going for a ‘hard’ Brexit: Britain will sever its ties with the single market. There are currently two schools of thought on the consequences of this. The first holds that Britain has foolishly squandered its already diminished position in the world. University of Cambridge lecturer Kirsty Hughes wrote that the UK’s decision ‘to sideline itself and retreat into mercantilism constitutes “an act of folly”’. Linda Colley, Professor of History at Princeton, argued that Brexit had given ‘renewed encouragement to the lurking chimera of Britain’s global destiny, which risks being dangerously distracting. Brexit threatens to defer yet again a serious and woefully overdue reappraisal of what the foreign policy of a much-reduced UK can feasibly be’.
The second school of thought, which is the official government line, holds exactly the opposite viewpoint: Brexit will give the country the chance to reestablish its position as a truly ‘global Britain’. May stressed this in her January speech, although she did not clarify how this ambition would be realized. “The great prize for this country – the opportunity ahead – is to use this moment to build a truly global Britain. A country that reaches out to old friends and new allies alike. A great, global trading nation, and one of the firmest advocates for free trade anywhere in the world,” she said. ‘Global’ and ‘free trade’ were recurrent words in her speech and all the other speeches by senior cabinet members on Brexit. They even suggested that Great Britain should strive to become an offshore tax haven where international investors would eagerly invest large sums of money, boosting the British economy.
The Gulf, a Strategic Priority
Within this emerging ambition, it has already become clear that intensifying trade relations with the countries of the Gulf ranks very high on Britain’s list of strategic priorities. In September 2016, May was host to the Emir of Qatar and in December 2016 to the King of Bahrain. Royal visits were made to Oman and the United Arab Emirates and, most recently, the British government reaffirmed its commitment to construct military bases in Oman and Bahrain for the two aircraft carriers that are currently being built for the Royal Navy. Selling arms to the Gulf countries is also a highly lucrative source of income for British arms manufacturers. For instance, since Saudi Arabia’s armed forces entered the conflict in Yemen in 2015, the UK has sold arms, aircraft and munitions worth a total of €3.9 billion to the kingdom. Yet these lucrative deals come with a price tag of another kind. The UK has become a party to regional conflicts, like the one in Yemen, which has killed thousands of civilians, or the suppression of internal dissent, as in Bahrain.
In a December speech 2016 outlining British foreign policy post-Brexit, Secretary for Foreign Affairs Boris Johnson also stressed free trade as a key interest of a ‘global Britain’. Johnson contended that Britain’s security depended on stabilizing Europe’s “wider neighbourhood”. He specifically mentioned “the ungoverned expanses of the Middle East […] where the nation state itself is in peril, where we are struggling against non-state -actors who view the very concept of a global liberal order with contempt”.
In a speech in October 2016 in Washington DC, Admiral Sir Philip Jones, a senior Royal Navy officer, also specifically mentioned Britain’s global interests as a trading nation, and contended that “nowhere is this more apparent today than in the Gulf, where we are working closely with the US 5th Fleet to promote stability, combat terrorism and to keep the shipping lanes open and safe for world trade”. In a lecture in July 2016, Jones described the presence of the Royal Navy in the Gulf as “a 40-year strategic commitment to the UK’s long-term interests and one that shows no sign of lessening […]. The opening of our new naval base in Bahrain in the next few years will quite literally cement the Royal Navy’s commitment to the Gulf.” He stressed that, in particular, the two new operational carriers (stationed in Bahrain) and “a credible number of jets” would be crucial to shaping Britain’s military power in the world and offering the “most potent carrier strike capability outside the United States”. All this with the explicit goal of safeguarding ‘global Britain’s’ trade partners in the Gulf and guaranteeing access to strategic waterways such as the Arab Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz.
However, there is a large elephant in the room, which May and Johnson’s various policy speeches have artfully ignored. It is clear that the US-UK relationship has become even more of a strategic asset for the UK after Brexit. Yet the new Trump administration in Washington has adopted a strident anti-Iran tone and several key players in the administration are known for their hawkish and ideological stance towards Iran and Islam in general. At the same time, the British government is trying to cash in on the opportunities that the relaxation of Western sanctions against Iran offers to international companies. Last November 2016, Britain’s Department for Trade wrote on its website:: ‘Iran is the biggest new market to enter the global economy in over a decade, offering significant opportunities in most sectors, with potential to grow as the market in Iran expands.’ The Gulf countries may be important for geo-strategical and military reasons and as a weapons market. Iran, however, with its large population, represents an important potential market for British consumer goods. Yet post-Brexit Britain will have to compete for Iran’s favour with a strong, unified EU bloc.
In several Gulf countries that have become strategic partners for Britain there is internal dissent, often along Sunni-Shia lines, with Iran playing either a perceived or a real role in stirring up this dissent. And as an Islamic Republic, Iran clearly has its own agenda in the Gulf. In the coming months and years, this may bring Iran into direct conflict with the US. Britain has hitched its wagon even more closely to that of the US after Brexit. In doing so, it runs the serious risk of being sucked into another military intervention in the Gulf, like the 2003 invasion of Iraq; an intervention it did not seek but one it will find hard to avoid and will severely hurt its economic ambitions regarding Iran.