The writer is a doctoral student at the University of Leeds’ Political Science and International Relations Department with research focusing on international relations theories and European Union security.
Given the debate over Brexit, it was expected that the United Kingdom would have to bear numerous costs in terms of the economy. The prospect of being cut off from the European market and from trade agreements between the European Union and non-EU member states seemed to back up these reports, so the UK was expected to sign new trade agreements and amend existing ones as the most likely scenario. Post-Brexit developments in the UK’s foreign policy confirmed these predictions. As well as the steps taken towards the Gulf countries, the trade agreements signed with 60 non-EU countries, including Turkey, and even the application to the Trans-Pacific Partnership Trade Pact (CPTPP) with regard to the Asia-Pacific region can be cited as examples.
On the other hand, the establishment of a permanent naval base in Bahrain to boost Britain’s presence in the Gulf, the opening of military logistics and training facilities in Oman, and a sales agreement for 48 warplanes made with Saudi Arabia – on which countries such as Germany have placed arms sales restrictions – are all significant developments. After the Cold War, Britain became a net energy importer due to an increasing need for energy because of its limited resources, and the security of the Gulf countries due to economic problems that could arise after Brexit is critical in terms of energy security in the climate of ever-increasing tensions in the Middle East, so the aforementioned measures were taken. Another dominant view on the issue is that, during the presidency of Barack Obama, the United States’ foreign policy priorities shifted to the Asia-Pacific region, so, along with Russia, which came to the region due to the power vacuum in the Middle East, and the threat of increasing activities of Iran and terrorist organizations such as Daesh, it was Britain that wanted to undertake the mission to lead the Gulf countries. However, the origins of both of these comments are also linked to Britain’s post-Brexit quest for economic space.
Of course, the comments made, the reasons suggested, and the results can all help to understand the deepening Gulf-UK relations to some extent. However, presenting an alternative analysis from a broader perspective on the subject is also possible. It can be observed that Britain acted differently from the other members in the process starting from its membership to the European Economic Community (EEC) – which was one of the first steps toward the EU – until Brexit. Examples include not joining the Eurozone or the Schengen region, the categorical position that all European Union Common Security and Defense Policy (CSDP) decisions must be taken unanimously, or, contrary to all of the above, not hesitating to join the common market. In other words, it is understood that Britain seeks to benefit from the economic privileges provided by the Union while trying to make minimum concessions on its sovereignty by preventing events from unfolding outside of its control. In addition to this unique/different ground on which it has traditionally stood in Europe, Britain, due to its colonial past, has a different position on and relationships with the Gulf countries compared to other European states.
US presence is decisive factor in UK regional policies
Another determining factor in the UK’s position, on the other hand, is the US approach to the region. The fact that the US left European countries to deal with major crises on their own, especially during the disintegration of Yugoslavia after the Cold War, led Britain to conclude that it needed to be prepared for a similar crisis that could arise under the roof of the Union, and to pioneer the establishment of the CSDP. In the ongoing process, when the superpower returned to the region under the presidency of George W. Bush with the invasion of Iraq, it acted in concert with the US amid the strong anti-war rhetoric within the EU. During the Obama era, the intense US pressure towards its strategic partners to cover more of the security costs and it leaving its allies, yet again, to face new regional crises alone was seen by Britain as a situation to take measures against. Especially in Libya, its effort to support the opposition against Gaddafi with an operation carried out with France under the roof of NATO, bypassing the EU, paid off. However, even though the Gaddafi administration was deposed as a result of the operation, stability in Libya could not be achieved without American involvement. Again, without the US, the incidents in Ukraine that eventually led to Russia’s annexation of Crimea could not be prevented, and likewise, although operations were carried out by a US-led coalition against Daesh in Syria, no action could be taken against the Assad regime, the root of the problem. Since it became apparent that the US would not be directly involved in these crises, Britain, along with the EU, chose not to take action against the crises or merely participated in some of the economic sanctions.
However, at the same time, Britain began to take advantage of the open space created by the absence of the US and began to deepen its ties with the Gulf, especially prior to Brexit. As the region’s insecurity grew, so did the need for protection in the Gulf countries. For this reason, the UK announced in 2014 that it would establish a naval base in Bahrain. Simultaneously, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) began work on converting the Al-Minhad airbase to accommodate its own air forces. In addition, as economic ties improved, the trade volume with the Gulf countries increased by approximately 2.5 times between 2010 and 2016. In other words, Britain both opened a space for itself independently of the EU and increased its economic and military influence in a region that was previously under US protection. All of these regional crises have also created serious problems for Europe in terms of energy security, terrorism and migration. A similar situation continued during the Trump era as well. The US even pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal, which the EU had backed strongly. The Iran threat to the EU is expected to grow even further, implying that the EU will have to confront this threat on its own once more.
Reasons for deepening UK-Gulf relations
The outcomes of the US approach actually explain why Brexit is no longer a costly route and why Britain’s ties with the Gulf are deepening. Although the UK and EU have officially taken separate paths, many people argue that the geopolitics of the region has not changed. Precisely for this reason, it is highly predictable that European countries, which are currently dealing with regional problems on their own and have limited maneuvering space, will not try to punish the decision of separation of one of the two strongest states of the Union, especially in the area of security. In addition, unlike many EU members, the UK does not owe its relations with the US to the EU. In other words, the EU has less bargaining power against the UK than vice versa. It was seen in this regard, as a result of the negotiations between the EU and the UK, that mutual privileges can only be maintained with adjustments in the method of implementation. In fact, the parties offer each other goodwill and verbal commitments to continue working together. In this way, the UK will be able to develop relations with non-EU countries without the constraints imposed by the EU’s binding provisions, while maintaining economic ties with the EU with minimal disruption.
Considering the process as a whole, the strengthening of UK-Gulf relations cannot be attributed to Brexit, contrary to popular belief, but rather to one of the opportunities provided by the US withdrawal from the region, which happened concurrently with Brexit. In terms of the future of these relations, Biden’s election campaign promises and rhetoric signal that US will restore its relations with its traditional allies. These signs, however, are reminiscent of neo-liberal rhetoric encountered during Obama’s presidency. In a scenario in which the US forces its partners through international institutions to shoulder the costs of regional crises, it is likely that the UK will deepen its ties with Gulf countries and non-EU countries, such as Turkey and Egypt, because, in a scenario in which Biden – like Obama – gives “carrots” to Iran in return for a nuclear deal, it is highly likely that Iran’s effectiveness in the region will increase and pose a threat to Turkey and the Gulf countries. However, this does not mean that Britain would return to the region with the same enthusiasm to lead as it did before 1971. The UK is simply trying to expand its sphere of influence by doing its best to minimize the costs associated with changing circumstances.
In conclusion, now that the UK is free of the EU “burden”, it is expected that it will further strengthen its ties with the Middle East in general, and with the Gulf countries in particular, as a result of the US desire to share the burden. In addition to this, Britain will open new avenues for cooperation with important regional countries like Turkey or Egypt. Nevertheless, social unrest in the region, particularly in non-democratic governments such as those in the Gulf, could defy all predictions and leave everyone facing a completely different scenario.
*Translated from Turkish by Baran Burgaz Ayaz
*Opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Anadolu Agency.
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