Amid Brexit, Britain reexamines its stance on involvement in the Mideast

“In Jerusalem, the center of three great faiths, we are historically connected and will be for many years perhaps centuries to come.”

Anti-Brexit supporters protest outside the Houses of Parliament in London, Britain, April 1, 2019 (photo credit: ALKIS KONSTANTINIDIS / REUTERS)
Anti-Brexit supporters protest outside the Houses of Parliament in London, Britain, April 1, 2019
Brexit has fueled a re-examination of Britain’s current policies and sparked a debate over its future position on the Middle East stage.
Two bodies at the forefront of the ongoing debate are the think tank RUSI (Royal United Services Institute for Defence & Security Studies) and BICOM (Britain Israel Communications and Research Centre), both conducting research and offering insight into the region and its key players.
RUSI and BICOM recently brought together some of the country’s top thought leaders to look at what the UK’s involvement in the Middle East (MENA region) might look like post Brexit. For starters, according to RUSI’s Michael Stephens, Britain will not disengage from the Middle East.
“There are reasons” he explained, “from a mixed historical legacy that is in some ways positive, in many ways negative, that connects us into the region’s past, its present and also its future.
“In Jerusalem, the center of three great faiths, we are historically connected and will be for many years perhaps centuries to come,” he continued.
A 2018 Bicom paper, “British Middle East Strategy after Brexit,” authored by Dr. Toby Greene from Queen Mary University, who presented at the event, alongside two earlier papers – “Britain Israel trade after Brexit” (December 2017) and “UK-Israel relations after Brexit: cyber security” (April 2018) –  examined the topic, as well, finding that government-to-government cooperation between the UK and Israel in cyber security is strong, even described by a senior UK official as a first-order partnership.
Israel is widely recognized for its unique innovation ecosystem with close interaction between government, military, academia and industry,” one paper claimed, revealing the ecosystem to be “a model which the UK has sought to emulate.”
The papers also referred to a bilateral trade between the UK and Israel worth more than £8 billion, with the UK being Israel’s most significant trading partner under the US.
Furthermore, more than 300 Israeli companies already have a presence in the UK and one in seven NHS drugs currently come from Israel. However, several of Israel’s top arenas, such as high-tech. cyber security, research and development and fintech are largely not under the purview of EU-Israel agreements, easing the challenges post-Brexit.
Dona Haj from the DCMS UK-Israel Tech Hub urged that the UK should go beyond traditional methods of trade and look into tech hubs when engaging in the MENA region. Describing UK-Israel technological collaborations as enabling synergies and creating “win-win scenarios”, Haj noted the opportunity for the UK to help shape the region through linking up the tech worlds of Israel, the UK and the Arab world.
Referring to the nature of Britain’s post Brexit engagement on the world stage, Sir Mark Lyall Grant, former UK National Security Advisor, spoke of the impact of “soft power, describing it as Britain’s most important leverage.
"We cannot pretend we are going to have the same hard power that we've had in the past,” he explained, but Britain’s soft power is still extremely strong manifesting itself in “the royal family and the culture, the music and the film,” the language, universities, the sport, the media and the city of  London among others, “these are all aspects of soft power that are a massive asset for this country.”
Dr. David Roberts from King’s College London agreed. He dismissed those who might consider royal diplomacy anachronistic.
“There is something unusual there” he said, “and it is relatively easy for British diplomats to get facetime in the region…but we are not as special as we think: market dynamics in the Gulf rule above all else."
On the other hand, Dr. Emman al-Badawy from the Institute for Global Change, expressed less confidence in the ability of Britain’s soft power to affect the ways people in the Arab world form their identities.
“Religious institutions are alienating young people in the Arab world,” Al Badawy said, “and there is an increasing desire to keep religion in the private sphere.”
At the moment Brexit “is the lens for everything,” observed RUSI’s Prof. Michael Clarke.  The questions for British policy remain the same,” he added, “but the answers have all changedbecause Brexit has changed the answers to everything.”
As far as the Middle East is concerned, “we're looking at great power shifts and I worry that US and European priorities in the Middle East are diverging to a fairly considerable extent, certainly over Iran and other issues, the regional dynamics of the Middle East seem to me to be changing quite quickly and that's something that will pose big issues for Britain,” particularly in the light of Brexit.
“The outcomes will be quite poor if Britain drifts into them,” warned Clarke, calling for the UK to face its policy choices, make a conscious effort and accept that Britain is at a tipping point not just because of Brexit but because of the geopolitical wheels of the 2020s.
“Unless we accept that,” Clarke continued, “We will drift into what I think would be policy irrelevance and that's a great shame because it doesn't have to be that way.”
Greene said there is no question that "trade with the Middle East will only become more important in a post-Brexit context.”
Stressing the benefit of robust trade to Britain’s economy, Greene urged politicians to put the “long-term interests of the UK first by resisting the “short-term pressures to cut themselves off from the problems of the Middle East.”