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Brexit’s Impact on UK-Middle East Relations

This past month, the British Prime Minister Theresa May and her government have scrambled to break the parliamentary deadlock, following the proposal’s January 15th defeat. The race against the March 29th deadline has thrust many questions into the fold regarding Britain’s divorce from the European Union and has cast doubts on whether a negotiated deal is politically possible at this point in time. While these questions will persist in anticipation of May’s ‘plan B’, Brexit’s broader geopolitical consequences outside the contours of Europe, remain widely unexplored within public discourse. While many experts have denoted the impact that Brexit will wage upon the political and defensive alliances, markets, multilateral institutions, security systems of Europe, Asia, and North America, little has been remarked about Brexit’s scope of impact in the Middle East and North Africa.

Prime Minister Theresa May meets with King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. They held a lunch at Bilateral talks at Yamamah Palace.
Image courtesy of Jay Allen © 2017

If searching for an indication of what a post-Brexit, Middle East foreign policy will look like, look no further than the Prime Minister May’s three-day visit to the region in March of 2017. The prime minister selected just two countries, Saudi Arabia and Jordan, to reaffirm British friendship after the completion of Article 50. In Riyadh, the United Kingdom’s delegation engaged in discussions about British investment routes and assistance with Vision 2030, and arranged channels for an immediate bilateral trade agreement, which was later solidified in May 2018 as a trade deal worth $90.29 billion. In Jordan, the prime minister promised to deploy military trainers to the Jordanian-Syrian border, where the UK has conducted over four major exercises with more than 3,000 personnel to assist the Jordanian special forces in their fight against the Islamic State. A spokesman for the prime minister commented that “It’s clearly in the UK’s security interests to support Jordan and Saudi Arabia in tackling regional challenges to create a more stable region.” Though May made an effort to spur excitement about partnership with a post-Brexit UK, her visit made it clear that the Middle East is not immune to the consequences of Brexit; in the three days, there was little attention paid to joint developmental and humanitarian assistance, long-term trade cooperation, or multilateral engagement in the region—all efforts were spent on short-term reconstructions of British trade networks and national security concerns. This is London’s post-Brexit Middle East agenda.

While most research and discourse have focused on Brexit’s breadth in continental Europe and the international market, little attention has been paid to the political shockwaves that will hit the Middle East and North Africa. The largest question at hand has been whether the UK’s independence from Brussels will make it more isolationist or activist in the region. Advocates of an activist British foreign policy, such as Chairman of the Parliamentary Foreign Affairs Committee Crispin Blunt, have advocated for doubling the Foreign Office budget and recalibrating foreign policy to be “more open and engaged in the world.” On the other hand, analysts have cautioned against this activist portrayal of a post-Brexit U.K., as foreign policy will be constrained by the xenophobic and conservative political realities that elected for Brexit in the first place. The reality of future policy is more complex: the UK will predictably be an emboldened, unilateral actor in the Middle East, but constrained by domestic politics to conduct agreements along strict lines of trade and counter-terrorism efforts.

Economic Relations & Consequences

In the wake of an exit, the UK will find itself a weaker financial actor in the global market, prompted to construct new, bilateral trade alliances to buoy its economy. The Ministry of International Trade has already indicated they will seek to reconstruct and re-adopt trade agreements with states already commercially tied to the EU. In the immediate aftermath of withdrawal in March 2019, the UK will most likely look to Middle Eastern and North African countries party to the 2002 Association Agreement, such as Tunisia, Algeria, Israel, and Egypt. The UK is also likely to place a key emphasis on long-term Gulf investment and trade opportunities with the peninsula’s wealthiest states, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, through mutual trade agreements, investment opportunities, and potential multilateral economic cooperation agreements.

As the global market prepares itself for drastic changes in trade networks and investments, the Middle East—particularly states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC)—prepare for a different set of economic challenges. Brexit will not have a direct drastic impact upon the Middle East oil industry, as the UK primarily imports oil and petroleum supplies from Norway and Nigeria. However, the reduced value of sterling and the predicted shrink of British Gross Domestic Product (GDP) could potentially reduce demand for oil and cause prices per barrel to fall.

Political Alliances & Impact on Humanitarian Assistance

Divorced from Brussels policy, the UK will have a renewed focus on bilateral relationships grounded in British national interest. With this pivot, however, comes changes in London’s hierarchy of priorities. With an expected drop in the value of sterling, the RAND Corporation has warned that the British defense industry will experience a challenge to its ambitious equipment spending plans and financial losses to the UK’s vulnerable firms, propelling the UK to increase production and engage in bilateral defense agreements. The future of British political involvement in the Middle East will predictably be security-oriented, distancing itself from an EU mired in refugee assistance, humanitarian aid, and investment in development. While the UK is unlikely to lower its commitment of 0.7 percent of its Gross National Income (GNI) to international assistance, as recommended by the United Nations, the Middle East’s war-torn flash points will still experience a significant withdrawal of European attention from both the UK and  the EU. The EU is one of the Middle East’s largest contributors of aid and developmental assistance through its External Action Service (EEAS). With the departure of the UK, the EEAS will experience drastic reductions in assistance contributions. The UK is one of six countries in the international system that meets the UN’s 0.7 percent requirement for developmental aid, and has donated billions to the European Commission and other EU-sponsored entities for aid programs. The absence of London in Brussels will be heavily felt in the Middle East—especially in zones of conflict.

The UK is swiftly approaching the March 29th Brexit deadline. Much of the political atmosphere has been marred with uncertainty and questions: whether there will be a “hard” or “soft” exit, substantial support from May’s government, another electoral referendum, a resurgence of legal complexities with the Good Friday Agreement, and what a post-Brexit global market will truly look like. However, Brexit’s biggest ramifications are not only confined to the contours of Europe: the Middle East will see a drastic change in their economic, political, and security partnership with the United Kingdom and the European Union.

Many voices have advocated that Brexit will embolden a more righteous UK-Middle East foreign policy unshackled from EU regulations and restrictions, or that an exit will carry no substantial impact in the region. Yet, the forecast for UK-Middle East relations post-Brexit reflects a regional strategy that lacks long-term vision. After the completion of Article 50, the UK predictably will shift to secure temporary, bilateral trade agreements, draw back its foreign assistance budgets, and prioritize security threats over development and humanitarian aid with its few, prominent Middle Eastern allies.


Caroline Rose

Caroline serves as the London Correspondent for Charged Affairs, covering relevant issues within UK and European politics. She is a current Masters candidate at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE), where she studies the history of crisis decision-making in the Cold War Middle East. Caroline writes about a range of foreign policy trends, but is particularly interested in Levantine security, illicit narcotic trade in the Middle East, and the European defensive community. Follow Caroline on Twitter @CarolineRose8.
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