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Rishi Sunak and the UK's desire to project power in the Middle East

But the new prime minister’s recent rhetoric about moving the British embassy in Israel to Jerusalem may have to be abandoned.

Analysis | Middle East

With Rishi Sunak’s appointment as British Prime Minister on October 24, the United Kingdom has selected its third prime minister in less than two months. Despite the turmoil under Liz Truss’s 44-day tenure after Boris Johnson’s forced resignation in July, Rishi Sunak has temporarily saved the party as a unity candidate, with most Conservative MPs nominating him in a fast-track vote.

Currently, Sunak’s outlook on foreign policy seems almost identical to that of his predecessor Liz Truss, while echoing Britain’s post-Brexit position under the banner of “Global Britain.”

The mantra of “Global Britain” is important for understanding the UK’s present ambitions in the world. Its stated aims are to enhance Britain’s diplomatic and international trade ties and improve defense and technological capabilities while upholding an international rules-based order. Simultaneously, Britain has sought free-trade agreements with Australia, Canada, Africa, India, and countries in the Indo-Pacific. London has also adopted a sanctions approach to countering Russia over the Ukraine war and has also proposed designating China as a similar adversary.

As for the Middle East, Britain seeks to strengthen ties with the Gulf Cooperation Council, including seeking a free-trade agreement. A UK-GCC FTA would be the first such agreement between the bloc and any European power.

Sunak’s unequivocal support for Israel and tightening British-Israeli relations also stands out. Sunak has opposed the labelling of Israel as an apartheid state — despite such labelling coming from organizations like Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and B’Tselem. He has also committed to a pledge under Boris Johnson’s government to crack down on the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, by banning it from public bodies. Sunak has also trumpeted pro-Israel narratives like the country being “a shining beacon of hope in a region of autocracies and religious extremists.”

Such remarks from Sunak may not help his push for better relations with other states like Egypt and the GCC. But Sunak has previously praised Israel’s normalization with several Arab states including the United Arab Emirates, Morocco, and Sudan, adding that “the UK is in a strong position to leverage its historic relationships with other Gulf states to widen the accords and I would like to see UK diplomats place a greater focus on this.”

Yet more consequentially, Sunak also said at a Conservative Friends of Israel event in August that there was a “very strong case” for moving the UK embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem — a step Truss also proposed. 

While this could bolster British and Israeli relations, particularly as Sunak discussed an FTA with Israeli Finance Minister Avigdor Lieberman in April 2022 when he was Johnson’s Chancellor, it could have diplomatic repercussions. Kuwait said it would vote against any FTA with the GCC should Britain proceed with the embassy move.

Even though Britain sees ties with Israel as necessary for projecting power in the Middle East and compensating for the loss of EU trade, bilateral relations with the GCC are perhaps of greater importance for the UK.

Bilateral trade between London and the GCC had markedly increased following the Brexit vote in 2016 (from $19.1 billion in 2010 to around $61 billion in 2019). Trade deals with the GCC are not only important for Britain’s geopolitical influence in the Middle East but withdrawing from the EU’s single market left Britain more economically vulnerable, thus prompting it to secure alternatives.

That Britain wants to pen an FTA shows how relevant the Gulf is to Britain’s ambitions on the world stage, as a trade deal also intends to strengthen Britain’s global trade routes in the Indo-Pacific.

Second, Britain had opened naval bases in Bahrain and Oman in 2018 and 2019 respectively. And in November 2021, Defense Secretary Ben Wallace announced that Britain would move its military base in Canada to Oman by 2023, effectively enabling British forces to be deployed closer to theaters of actions near its adversaries Iran and Russia.

Arms sales are a key part of Britain’s ties to the Gulf. It is the second biggest supplier of weapons to Saudi Arabia, behind the United States. Given that the Biden administration has recently threatened to end weapons sales to Riyadh and after it ended “relevant” arms sales to the country in February 2021 over the Yemen war, and with Russia and China strengthening their own clout in the Gulf, there is certainly more competition for arms contracts from Western governments in this regard.

So far, Britain also has a diplomatic advantage. Unlike the United States and the European Union, Britain has avoided raising human rights concerns within the GCC states. Even if Biden’s threats to end weapons sales to Saudi Arabia are just that, Riyadh and the UAE could see a more reliable partner in Britain.

While a UK embassy move to Jerusalem would place London on the wrong side of international law, it could also be diplomatically harmful in the Gulf, particularly as the UK does not enjoy the substantial military and economic leverage that the United States does in the region, meaning it would not be practical for Britain to choose both.

In the meantime, Sunak will be able to pursue other proactive stances in the Middle East, such as continuing Britain’s isolation of Iran. Sunak defended this as necessary to protect Israel and prevent Tehran from gaining a nuclear weapon, and even suggested designating the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist organization.

Overall, London sees securing an FTA with the GCC while also strengthening trade ties with Israel as necessary for strengthening British foreign policy clout in the Middle East and abroad in a post-Brexit world. While it will continue to shore up relations with both, Sunak would have to tread carefully with his initial plans to move the UK embassy to Jerusalem, and it would not be surprising if he backs down from this pledge. Ultimately, the Conservatives may therefore have to accept lesser leverage in the Middle East and beyond compared to what they had aspired to.

Editorial credit: I T S / Shutterstock.com
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