Theresa May’s Middle East fantasy

Theresa May and King Abdullah in Jordan

By Sammy Barker

Theresa May’s visit to Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Iraq, at the end of November, highlighted the continuing decline of influence in Britain’s foreign policy. Of course, this was entirely unconscious. Her stated purpose was the opposite, to raise interest in the ‘offer’ that Britain is making to the region, after or despite Brexit. The nostalgia and myth making that characterises the pro-Brexit case spreads its ephemera all over the Tory government’s international endeavours. Her key note speech in Jordan on 30 November encapsulated this.

She started breezily. ‘From the Great Arab Revolt a century ago – when British Forces fought alongside the Hashemite Army of Sharif Hussein, with the help and support of the region’s local Bedouin tribes – to the establishment of the Emirate of Transjordan under the British Mandate in 1921 and the independent Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan in 1946, our two countries and our two peoples have stood resolutely alongside each other.’

It takes misty eyes to overlook Britain’s betrayal of the Arab cause, both through the division of the region under by Britain and France, and through the imposition of the Israeli state. Hardly resolute. Yet, it is true that British imperialism supported the Hashemite monarchy. Britain has specialised in promoting and supporting monarchies – from the Al Khalifa family in Bahrain in 1816 to the adventurous Crown Prince in Saudi Arabia today. Royal families are such reliable allies, not subject to the messy pressures that free people exert upon their representatives. Truly the future of British foreign policy is with the King of Jordan, rather than the over 70 per cent of the Jordanian population who happen to be Palestinian.

‘…over the nearly 18 years of His Majesty King Abdullah’s reign, we have continued to stand firmly side by side, including as partners in the Global Coalition against Daesh.’

This clouded over the inconvenience of that training camp for armed fighters in Jordan, where British armed personnel trained irregulars, many of whom saw action with Daesh, Al Qaeda and Al Nusrah in Iraq and Syria.

But May attempted the long view: ‘From trade treaties stretching back to the 17th century to our alliance in defeating Daesh, the rich and historic relationship between Britain and its allies in the Middle East has been the bedrock of our shared security and prosperity for generations’.

Not a sniff that over the centuries the relationship may have been less than equal, with the share of security and prosperity being lopsided. And it cannot be admitted that Hezbollah, Iran, the Syrian and Iraqi armed forces, the Popular Mobilisation Units in Iraq, and Russian armed forces were the ones who actually defeated Daesh, Al Qaeda and allies. Nor is there any reference to the British policy of training and supporting ‘rebels’ near the Turkish border after 2011. Working with the CIA, Britain played an important role in promoting a sectarian armed struggle against the Arab nationalist regime in Syria. The failure of that policy and the defeat of Daesh are synonymous.

Only if British policy is premised on the welfare of royal elites in the Middle East can it be seen as ‘shared security and prosperity’. Whenever the peoples of the region have demanded their rights, control of their resources, and a future independent of imperialism, then they have faced a belligerent, deceptive and ruthless response from successive British governments. But for Tories, revelling in notions of a benign empire, it is assumed that the peoples of the Middle East share the views of Tories and Foreign and Commonwealth Office bureaucrats.

In March this year, Government advisors in Whitehall gave the provisional title for a system of post-Brexit trade relations as ‘Empire 2.0’. The response of Downing Street was favourable. This was quietly dropped; presumably wiser council pointed out that many parts of the world have a jaundiced view of ‘Empire 1.0’, and would be unlikely to soften towards even an ironic, post-modern twenty first century edition.

Clearly part of May’s brief was to counter any suggestion that Britain is becoming inward looking. ‘To those who ask if the United Kingdom is in danger of stepping back from the world, I say: nothing could be further from the truth.’ If she says it, then it’s got to be true. ‘…we are making a new ambitious and optimistic offer of partnership.’ Which we aren’t calling Empire 2.0 anymore.

May went on to explain that this partnership will support security, defend against external aggression, resolve current conflicts, and help deliver social and economic reforms by addressing ‘the underlying causes’ of raging violence and political tension. Why such expertise is being withheld in the Tory’s governance of Britain goes unexplained.

May elaborated, apparently, ‘…the UK has been proudly at the forefront of the international coalition that is defeating Daesh in Iraq and Syria. We have conducted more than 1600 air strikes against Daesh targets, second only to the United States’. In her vision, the ultimate sacrifice made by tens of thousands of Syrian soldiers, by many thousands of Iraqi soldiers and Popular Mobilisation personnel and Hezbollah brigades count for nothing. Magically, a few hundred air strikes have defeated Daesh.

But the security ‘offer’ was not just about Britain taking down Daesh: ‘…under my leadership we remain profoundly and unequivocally committed to supporting the security of this entire region … with our Royal Navy continuing to patrol the Gulf as it has done for decades’. Indeed the commitment is so profound that it involves establishing two new naval bases – in Bahrain, immediately adjacent to the US Fifth Fleet – and in Oman where the port of Duqm infrastructure is to be changed to accommodate the two new British aircraft carriers. All very impressive, but there are some money issues. The Bahrain base is being paid for by King Hamad, whose dictatorial regime has completed a particularly repressive year. And the two aircraft carriers have cost so much that Britain can’t afford the necessary compliment of aircraft to be carried. Fortunately the US is on hand to supply the necessary planes – and Britain may be allowed to supply pilots, as is the case of RAF pilots flying US planes under US command elsewhere today in the Middle East.

Referring to her meeting the day before with Iraqi Prime Minster Abadi, she had made clear ‘…we will not let the challenges of the past prevent us from doing what is right for the future.’ Pity this grandiloquence is not matched by the actual ‘offer’ made – £10million over the next three years to strengthen ‘counter-terrorism capabilities’. Earlier this year, the Iraqi government issued a report suggesting they needed $50 billion to rebuild Iraq. A party to the destruction, Britain is definitely not a party to reconstruction.

Back to Jordan, where May emphasised the military links. ‘So far this year, we have seen four major UK military exercises with over 3,000 UK personnel in Jordan and over 350 Jordanian personnel taking part in 19 different military courses in the UK.’ None of which will be contributing to liberating the Palestinians, or even seriously defending them from the new threats arising from Trump’s policy. She made no mention of British forces being currently embedded with Jordanian forces in Libya, where her Government’s successful invasion has created social chaos.

The formal offer on security follows from the war on Syria. ‘You have the admiration and respect of the whole world for the extraordinary compassion, generosity and humanity that you have shown towards the hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees who have fled into your country.’ May believes she speaks on behalf of whole world, except presumably the British government which is perfectly comfortable refusing entry to Syrian refugees. She has an alibi for such cruelty: ‘We have provided over three quarters of a billion dollars in Jordan – both for vital health and education facilities for those displaced by the fighting and also address the needs of host communities’. That may be a lot of hush money, but it doesn’t hide the British government’s complicity in mass displacement, through encouraging and promoting the armed opposition in Syria, nor does it excuse the callousness of refusing to accept refugees.

The collapse of Cameron and the Tories’ policy of regime change in Syria has created some embarrassment. Firstly, Cameron’s hideous suggestion that the Syrian regime benefitted from, or supported, Daesh has evaporated from the heat of the Syrian armed forces struggle. Secondly, the defeat has seen the resistance forces in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Iran strengthened. The influence of the US, British and Gulf allies has been weakened. Irritation was expressed at this loss: ‘…the international community must stop creating rival processes, and unite behind a single UN–led process in Geneva’. That would be the UN-led process that the British government has done its best to derail by insisting upon Assad’s removal as a pre-condition for a peace process. How infuriating it must be for May and her Tory chums that Iran, Turkey and Russia and co-ordinating an actual peace process with the Syrian government.

And how infuriating it must be that the Syrian regime has consolidated its hold over the majority of Syrian territory, and the majority of the population. For May said ‘…surely none of us can imagine that a government led by Bashar Al Assad could claim …legitimacy.’ This reflects the unchanging and failed character of British policy. May’s feeble imagination is the perfect fit.

Unable to elaborate a coherent stance, May topped it with her views on Iran. ‘Iran is showing that it is more interested in bolstering its role in the region, and that of its proxy Hezbollah, than finding a lasting peace in Syria.’ Western policy since 2011 has been premised on the road to Tehran running through regime change in Damascus. Suggesting that Iran has been the belligerent party is to turn reality inside out. Unlike the British and US governments, Iran has a direct and vested interest in stability in a region that it a component part of.

Without pausing for breath, May implied that Iran is some sort of threat to the nuclear deal it patiently and painfully negotiated. May, of course, did not whisper a word about the actual threat to the deal, Trump’s efforts to overturn it.

Hook, line and sinker the British government has swallowed the Trump/Saudi bait against the people of Iran. ‘We must therefore strengthen our response to Iran’s ballistic missile programme and its proliferation of weapons. This includes in Yemen, where it is unacceptable for the Houthis to fire missiles at Riyadh.’ It is perfectly acceptable for Riyadh to fire missiles into the cities and towns of Yemen. By the spring of this year, 90,000 sorties had been flown by the Saudis. Many of the missiles and bombs have been supplied by Britain, delivered by the Saudi Air Force, which has more British built fighters than the RAF.

May insisted that ‘…we cannot lose sight of the millions of Yemenis experiencing appalling suffering for a war which has little to do with them.’ So, ‘we will continue as the third largest humanitarian donor to the crisis in Yemen, increasing our contribution to £155 million for 2017/18.’ Given that Britain has sold £4.6 billion worth of controlled arms to Saudi Arabia since it started the war upon Yemen then we still in profit, despite our generous concern. The Commons Foreign Affairs Committee reported in 2016 that DFID has had to suspend its long term programmes in Yemen. Hence money is being allocated but not spent. The absurd contradiction of promising aid whilst aiding destruction is never even considered by May.

An even creepier section follows. Talking about an absence of ‘flow of commercial supplies on which the country depends’, May explained: ‘During my discussions with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Riyadh last night, we agreed that steps need to be taken as a matter of urgency to address this and that we would take forward more detailed discussions on how this could be achieved’. The Crown Prince is the person most responsible for the interruption of the ‘flow of commercial supplies’. Instead of the creepy euphemism, things should be more clearly stated as a ‘siege’ or ‘blockade’. So powerful is British foreign policy that it has secured not one, but two discussions on the issue. Meanwhile the strangulation of the people of Yemen continues.

It is hard to believe that May’s speech could have got worse. But it did, as she condescended to give her views on Palestine. ‘The UK has an historic role in the search for a just and lasting settlement’. Some might argue this was forfeited when its so-called Mandate ran out, and it turned Palestine over to the armed militias of Zionism. But, ‘…in this centenary year of the Balfour declaration, I have acknowledged that this remains a sensitive issue for Palestine and many people today’. The British government celebrated the declaration whose centenary sees the Palestinians dispossessed, dispersed and stateless. A tad insensitive, perhaps?

‘…we are proud of Britain’s role in the creation of the State of Israel – so I have also been clear that we must address the suffering of Palestinians affected and dislodged by Israel’s birth.’ As the British government is doing nothing to address that suffering the speech is suitably silent now. Seventy years, and a proud record of indifference.

The survey of Britain’s offer on security is tidied up with the assurance that Britain is ‘not trying to impose Western solutions’. There’s no danger of Britain imposing a solution anywhere in the Middle East, although it may sub-contract in a US imposed one.

Finally, getting to the main meal, May spoke of ‘long term prosperity for the region’. But here the paucity of vision is greatest. She refered to some obvious factors – the extreme youth of the population of the region (over fifty per cent under 24years of age), and the negative impact of the drop in fossil fuel prices upon government revenue. There’s a swift pass to commending the neo-liberal economic reforms of the Saudi, Qatari, UAE and Jordanian governments. Then she said: ‘United Kingdom’s new offer is a step change in our support for these reforms’. There’s plenty of wind, until we learn that Theresa May has come ‘to propose a new long-term partnership to support your economic, social and political resilience’. Still more wind, and finally came the ‘beef’ – ‘We will use the full breadth of our international relationships and our position in multi-lateral financial institutions such as the IMF and World Bank to leverage the largest possible global financial backing for your vision 2025 reforms. We will mobilise partnerships between Britain and Jordanian businesses, focusing on our shared expertise in services, and working to deliver an ambitious post-Brexit trade deal between our two countries’.

So, we will speak up on your behalf in the US dominated international institutions, and we want a trade deal in future. It is difficult to see this as a new ‘long term partnership’, let alone ‘a step change’. The sole concrete proposal is ‘…an initial £94.5 million to support Jordan’s economic resilience – including £60 million in investment grants’. This may be useful spare change for Jordan’s infrastructure, but it is fantasy to suggest this is significant in Jordan’s social progress, or in Britain’s standing in the world.

The speech revealed the whole problem of British foreign policy in the region. No longer having the political or economic weight to seriously influence the region, the British government offers nostalgia, phantoms and peanuts.