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What Will Britain’s Relationship With the Middle East Be Like After Brexit?

By , July 2nd, 2017 | No Comments


Having voted to leave the European Union, the UK now needs to forge a new relationship for itself with the wider world. While all eyes will be on the new settlement with the EU itself, many of the more ardent Brexiteers want this process to involve a greater scope and scale, with the chance to re-shape relationships across the globe once there’s the freedom to act alone.

While nothing can be formally signed and finalised until the UK leaves the EU (probably in 2019), there will be much thought put into this in the meantime and the UK will need a couple of high profile successes to show that it is open for business.

So, what will this mean for the Middle East? Britain has a deep diplomatic and economic history with the region, but will this be altered by Brexit?

Middle East trade after Brexit

When it comes to Brexit, all eyes so far have been on economic factors. The pound has fallen in value – good news for exporters, bad for importers and holidaymakers – while the FTSE 100 has performed strongly.

Policymakers will be eager to engineer new trading relationships that ensure the economic picture is rosy and that sceptics among the 48% who wanted to remain in the EU in last year’s referendum are won over.

The Middle East – which along with North Africa already accounted for $18 billion of UK exports in 2014 – might well be a region targeted by the UK Government for an even closer working relationship. We can see the groundwork being laid for a smarter business relationship with Iran, with the Iranian energy minister already meeting with Rolls Royce representatives in London. There’s certainly the potential for much smoother relations with Iran than has been the case in recent decades.

The UK might also, for example, wish to drop tariff barriers on things such as agricultural goods that it does not produce itself. These barriers are often seen as a nuisance for Middle East and North Africa (MENA) countries who are banging on the door of the EU and trying to enhance their own export market but find themselves meeting opposition from Mediterranean rivals.

A different political outlook

While an ‘open for business’ attitude is needed by the UK – and that should mean opportunities for exporters in the Middle East – there are those who fear that this could come at the cost of country’s political influence in the region.

Will it, for example, be so easy to assert a diplomatic message in Jerusalem or Tehran at the same time as trying to forge a new economic relationship? Many also see that overseas aid might well be cut, with many leading figures in the Conservative Party keen to lose the commitment to spending 0.7% of GDP on foreign aid.

Yet it seems unlikely that the UK will retreat into a fully-fledged isolationist approach to world affairs. Indeed, if anything, a split from the EU might force the country further within the influence of the United States, which may or may not entail military engagement as President Trump finds his feet at the White House.

It’s likely that the UK will continue to want to cling to close relations with its traditional allies, especially as the fight to combat ISIS continues. The country will still retain its place on the UN Security Council and play a role in such affairs.

In terms of security and politics, therefore, Britain might well want it to appear ‘business as usual’. While superficially that might appear the case, you’d think the position might well be more a case of ‘business is usually on the agenda’ instead.

The leader of the outliers?

Writing in the Telegraph, Fabrice Pothier also intriguingly notes how a post-EU Britain might well have a role as the leading figure in what might be seen as the ‘outlier’ powers. Like Turkey, Norway, Ukraine, Switzerland and Iceland it will ‘gravitate around the EU’. Formally or informally, London could become a base for these nations to gather and raise issues of mutual interest.

With this group having an extensive involvement in the Middle East, it might even be possible to picture a new international body emerging – one which will have an influential role in the way Middle Eastern nations conduct relations with Europe and the wider Western world.

Photo: BBC

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