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The Middle East and UK Defence and Security Policies: Ambition to Disengage?

This essay was first published in October 2021, in the second volume of the Centre for Defence Studies series on The Integrated Review in Context: Defence and Security in Focus.

The UK government’s Integrated Review (IR) of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy of March this year, aims to capture the vision for Britain’s future role in the world. For some parts of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region the linkage between security and development is particularly pertinent, this includes countries in North Africa such as Tunisia or in the Levant such as Syria. This piece assesses how far the IR achieves the integration of these two areas and

argues that not only are the ambitions set out in the Integrated Review regarding the MENA region patchy, but also recent government policies linked to the IR are antithetical to these ambitions. – Inga Kristina Trauthig

Overall, the UK’s approach to defence and security in the MENA region in recent history, and especially since 2011 has been a mixed bag. This is evident, for instance, in the UK’s active intervention in the Libyan uprisings in 2011 but with little strategic commitment or embedding in a coherent approach to the region thereafter. The Review was one opportunity to outline and build a framework for a change in direction for the next years, but this opportunity has been largely missed.

Assessing the analysis and priorities addressed in the Review, two main points emerge with a focus on implications for the MENA region.

The Primacy of Trade

Firstly, the UK’s relationship with the Middle East is often envisioned to revolve around trade. When analysing implications of the Review for the MENA region, trade stands out as increasingly central to the policy development. While the Review mentions that trade is positioned ‘at the heart of Global Britain’ it 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.’

This underlying rationale of economic opportunity-seeking, however, is not unique to the MENA region. The Review’s much-discussed Indo-Pacific tilt is crucially linked to the hope of situating the UK competitively with regard to a region generating almost 35% of the world’s GDP.

A second aspect, however, is the geopolitical consideration as the UK government predicts that the Indo-Pacific region will increasingly become ‘the geopolitical centre of the world.’ Consequently, leaders of, inter alia, Middle Eastern countries are wondering how they factor into this geopolitical priority allocation. The pronounced Indo-Pacific tilt and its related redirection of resources with the aim to successfully carry out this strategic reorientation are of particular relevance to Arab Gulf States.

Introducing ‘Self-Reliance’

Furthermore, regarding security policy and support of the sovereignty of MENA states, the term expressed in the Integrated Review, ‘self-reliance,’ implicates the UK’s 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 not feasible in the short to mid-term. The Review does not spend time explaining what concepts of self-reliance mean for the Middle East but instead provides 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.”

This policy goal of ‘self-reliance’ in the region subtly insinuates a position of detaching the UK from the efforts of working for a more peaceful, stable Middle East. – Inga Kristina Trauthig

David Roberts and Sara Al Mahri assessed already that the Review captures a comparative shift away from the Middle East. Furthermore, the focus on the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states is also dialled down – while previously, in the 2015 National Security Strategy for instance, more emphasis had been placed on the UK’s pre-existing interaction and role in the Gulf, other policy promises, such as a ‘Gulf Strategy’ were never actually formulated.

In addition, the Review’s 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. – Inga Kristina Trauthig

The takeover by the Taliban of Afghanistan, a country with strong linkages to developments in the MENA region, underscores the dangers when a lack of strategic policy defines foreign policy in volatile countries.

The Importance of the GCC for the UK Military

On the flipside, the Review does not address the close military ties between the UK and GCC states. For instance, the UK has an extraordinarily close relationship to Qatar exhibited by the Royal Air Force’s various engagements with the country. Not as intimate but also important relationships are cultivated with Oman, Bahrain and the UAE.

In summary, the Review seems to indicate a policy of pick and choose that puts UK policy makers in a position where they can pursue a general detachment from the region while simultaneously benefitting from the military cooperation and also trade relations, which for example, currently put the GCC as the fourth largest export destination after the US, China, and the EU states, amounting to around £45 billion annually.

The Middle East in 2021 is Not Calming Down

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 in May 2021 this seems a grim reality. Other examples would be the recurring Libya quagmire, of a country riddled with militia coercion, or Tunisia, one of the few promising democracies following the Arab Uprisings in 2011, that witnessed a likely coup d’etat in late July 2021.

In a globalised world, it should be superfluous to outline that all these countries matter to the UK not only from a humanitarian point of view but also from a tangible security perspective. – Inga Kristina Trauthig

For instance, the two violent attacks in Reading in 2020 as well as the Manchester arena bombing of 2017 had linkages to Libya. Or in 2015, 38 people lost their lives when a gunman opened fire on tourists staying in the popular resort of Port El Kantaoui in Tunisia. UK government reactions to the threat to Tunisian democracy in 2021, however, were basically non-existent and in one of Britain’s closest allies, the USA, some advocated aid cuts in response to the political turmoil in the country – a distressing bellwether for aching Tunisia.

Regarding terrorism, this is stressed in the Review as a central security challenge for Britain but commitments to investments in counterterrorism are overwhelmingly directed towards 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 challenges of eradicating safe havens and tackling poor governance require long-term commitments, such as in Libya. This commitment has been patchy in the past and it seems it is likely to be neglected again in future UK foreign policies.

Aid Budget Cuts Will Weaken the Pursuit of UK Interests in MENA

Regarding the MENA region, the (allegedly temporary) cut in the aid budget (ODA) and reduction in the Army’s strength, combined with the merger of the Department for International Development (DFID) and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO)

into the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO), will leave Britain with less influence in the region. Especially regarding the UK’s soft power – while the UK development budget is still big by international standards (even at 0.5%), the recent struggles in Tunisia show the fragility of the MENA region and other countries such as the UAE are willing to invest far more resources in pursuing their policy goals, which are largely at odds with a democratic, inclusive vision.

In addition, the way the Review maintains regional divisions in its policymaking despite the prevalence of policy challenges that exceed national borders seems counter-intuitive and unfit for policy making in the 21st century. Covid-19 and challenges such as 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. Furthermore, the proclaimed Indo-Pacific tilt cannot be separated from other policy goals and questions remain if parts of the Gulf are included in the Indo-Pacific tilt due to its importance for other activities, such as being a base for the British Navy.


Inga Kristina Trauthig is a PhD candidate at the War Studies Department and Research Fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR) at King’s College London. Her research focusses on non-state actors in the Middle East and North Africa, particularly Libya. She holds an MLitt in Middle East, Caucasus and Central Asian Security Studies from the University of St Andrews.


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Inga Kristina Trauthig

Inga Kristina Trauthig

Visiting Scholar

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