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The Integrated Review and the Middle East: Trade Priorities, Self-Reliance and Pitfalls

Inga Trauthig

Doctoral candidate, Department of War Studies

09 June 2021

The UK government’s Integrated Review (IR) of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy announced in March this year, aims to capture the vision for Britain’s future role in the world, with a focus on the next ten years and concrete actions until 2025. While most government statements and corresponding news coverage fixated on the UK’s future relationship with China and the so-called Indo-Pacific tilt, digging deeper into the report uncovers plans for the UK’s future relations with other regions as well, including the Middle East.

With the government predicting that the Indo-Pacific region will increasingly become “the geopolitical centre of the world,” leaders of Middle Eastern countries are wondering how they factor into this geographical priority allocation. Assessing the analysis and UK priorities addressed in the Integrated Review, two main points emerge with a focus on implications for the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.


Firstly, the UK’s relationship with the Middle East is often envisioned to revolve around trade. When analysing implications of the Integrated Review for the MENA region, I’ve identified trade as increasingly central to policy development. The Review mentions that trade stands “at the heart of Global Britain” and goes on to emphasise that the UK “will look to deepen these links to become one of the region’s primary trade and investment partners.”


Secondly, in regards to security policy and support of the sovereignty of MENA states, the IR talks of “self-reliance,” suggesting the UK may be withdrawing from former responsibilities in this area. Given the region’s unabating conflicts, including both intra-state and inter-state rivalries, the goal of a MENA region that is invested in security self-reliance seems desirable from a UK perspective, but far from realisable at least in the short to mid-term.


The Review heavily reminds us of policy announcements coming from the White House following Joe Biden’s election – with parallels to the US transcending policy plans and also including practical alignments such as plans set out for a White House-style situation room built in the Cabinet Office.


In terms of its rhetoric on ‘self-reliance’, the Review tends to gloss over the finer details, providing a very brief summary: “We will (…) have thriving relationships in the Middle East … in support of a more resilient region that is increasingly self-reliant in providing for its own security.” In my view this policy goal subtly insinuates a position of detaching from the efforts of working for a more peaceful, stable Middle East.


Demands of self-reliance for the Middle East sit uncomfortably with current realities in the region. Withdrawing from a region that is embroiled in internationalised civil wars and rivalries, while also being deeply connected to the UK’s security and its imperial past, is problematic to say the least. Furthermore, the proclaimed Indo-Pacific tilt cannot be separated from other policy goals and questions remain if parts of the Gulf are included on the Indo-Pacific tilt due to its importance for other activities, such as being a base for the British Navy.


Amongst MENA researchers, a gloomy saying has prevailed, that independent of how much the West might want to disengage from the Middle East, the region will make sure to draw it back again. Given the recent escalations in Israel-Palestine this seems a grim reality.


The Review also stresses terrorism as a central security challenge for Britain and commits to investments in counterterrorism, which are overwhelmingly directed into the domestic sphere. The recent terrorist incidents cited, “Manchester, London and Reading,” have external linkages, with two of them connected to Libya. Generally speaking, terrorism doesn’t exist in a vacuum but instead is tied up in regional conflicts – with the UK pursuing a policy of self-reliance it potentially fuels further instabilities. Terrorism is a multidimensional policy challenge and the commitment to eradicate safe havens and tackle poor governance needs long-term commitments, such as with Libya. This commitment has been patchy in the past and it seems it is likely to yet again be neglected in future UK foreign policies.


In general, the way the IR maintains regional divisions in its policy-making, despite the prevalence of global challenges that exceed national borders, seems counter-intuitive and unfit for policy making in the 21st century. Covid-19, climate change and international terrorism, demand global solutions. World leaders would be best placed to formulate and pursue their policy priorities against the backdrop of these challenges instead of allocating priorities for different parts of the interconnected-world. While the IR mentions some potentials and promising commitments towards the MENA region (especially with regard to trade), the review falls short of acknowledging the region’s current developments and needs.

Inga Trauthig is a doctoral student at the Department of War Studies and Research Fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR), King’s College London.

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Inga Kristina Trauthig

Inga Kristina Trauthig

Visiting Scholar

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