Sir Alan Duncan is a member of the Intelligence and Security Committee, and a former International Development Minister. He is the incoming Chairman of the Conservative Middle East Council, whose outgoing Chairman, Baroness Morris, wrote for us yesterday.
I am proud to become Chairman of the Conservative Middle East Council this week, taking over formally from Baroness (Trish) Morris. Trish has built up CMEC even further over her five years as Chair and leaves it firmly established and respected amongst Conservatives. It is the main forum in the Party for all Middle Eastern issues.
There are no quiet times when it comes to the Middle East, but the region is of almost unparalleled importance at the moment and it is imperative that Conservatives seek to understand it and to think deeply about what our response to it should be. CMEC provides a forum for that to happen.
Conservatives are inherently pragmatic and realistic, which is just as well when it comes to the Middle East. The optimism of the Arab Spring and the belief that it would be followed by pluralist democracies has been proved to be a false dawn. We are forced to engage with the region as we find it, not as we would wish it to be.
Syria has hardened into the greatest foreign policy and humanitarian challenge of our time. We search for allies within the country but find few with any hope of winning out over the Assad regime or ISIS. While Europe scrambles to react to an endless stream of refugees, Russia has decisively entered the vacuum left by the United States’ post-Iraq reluctance to deploy troops and the British public’s reticence about doing something rather than nothing.
A second, barely reported, war continues to rage in Yemen between Houthi rebels and the legitimate government, backed by a coalition of Gulf countries, including Saudi Arabia and the UAE. The conflict is in danger of tipping from humanitarian crisis to catastrophe, with the poorest country in the region on the brink of genuine famine.
Saudi Arabia itself has presented us over the past few months with a question about whether our foreign policy should be to engage or to shun them in response to its hard line judiciary and use of capital punishment. As I argued in an article on the CMEC website earlier this month, while we should certainly not condone, we should be aware that aggressively condemning is no guarantee of reform either.
Tensions between Saudi and its regional adversary Iran are likely to grow in the coming years, particularly as the latter continues its re-emergence into the international fold following the nuclear deal. This is a rivalry that goes back hundreds of years and taps into the schism of Shia and Sunni Islam – it is essential, therefore, that we learn a bit more history and theology to go with our politics. CMEC will place a particular emphasis on Iran over the next few years as it opens itself up more to the West.
An understanding of the Middle East is a means to improving community relations here in Britain, too. I have long argued that we as a country do not sufficiently understand the three million Muslims who live here. There are political as well as social benefits to doing so, as we should seek not just to integrate British Muslims, but recruit them to the cause of Conservatism.
One of the key issues that fuels alienation across the Muslim community is the running sore of the Israel/Palestine dispute. It is an issue that has been used by groups on all sides for too long to score points, entrench political positions and sow grievances. Too often, those who shout the loudest know the least.
Conservatives should be unequivocal in supporting the right of Israel to exist and to defend itself. That, however, is a statement not a policy. It is also not a carte blanche to the Israeli government to act with impunity. Being a friend of Israel is not incompatible with being a friend of Palestine.
Israel’s occupation of the West Bank began as a response to the unprovoked aggression of the Six Day War in 1967, but it has now become the greatest risk to its long term security. Those who advocate unthinkingly against the Palestinians do Israel’s cause a disservice by ignoring or diminishing the reality of almost fifty years of occupation and the relentless expansion of illegal Israeli settlements into land that should form a future Palestinian state.
Conservative opinion has shifted noticeably over the past few years, as shown by the number of speeches from our benches in favour of Palestinian recognition during the historic Commons vote last year, passed by 274 votes to 12. Put simply, justice for the Palestinians is no longer a right vs left issue, it is a right vs wrong issue.
Whether on Israel and Palestine, North Africa, the Gulf or Iran, CMEC will continue to actively engage with parliamentarians, to facilitate a greater understanding of the issues, and to allow them to travel to different parts of the region to see it for themselves. It is a region of contradictions and complexity, which give the lie to the simplistic stereotypes often used to describe it. It will undoubtedly remain a focal point for international relations and one which Britain can still exert substantial diplomatic influence within.
In order to do so, it is vital for Conservatives to engage and to speak with authority on the Middle East. CMEC will keep contributing to that process in whatever way it can.