Marc Morrison is Research Officer at the Conservative Middle East Council.
Foreign Policy isn’t usually a focus of great attention during general election campaigns. The vicious terror attacks in London on Saturday and in Manchester in late May, however, have put a spotlight on British foreign policy and are leading to vigorous debate on global issues.
It is reported that the perpetrators of Saturday’s atrocity on London Bridge and in Borough Market had some kind of co-ordination with the Isil terror group, while Salman Abedi, the terrorist responsible for the Manchester attack, is believed to have been radicalised in Syria and came back to Britain from Libya just days before committing his massacre.
These events have displayed in the most traumatic way possible the link between the safety of British citizens at home and instability in parts of the Middle East.
In recent days, Jeremy Corbyn has used his campaign platform to insinuate that Anglo-American policy in the region bears responsibility for the rise of Isil and the wave of terrorist attacks we are witnessing in Europe. In his opinion, our domestic security will somehow be enhanced by allowing the Middle East to sort out its own problems. We only ever make things worse, he claims. He is very misguided.
The London and Manchester terrorists committed their callous acts – remorselessly slaughtering men, women and children alike – because they hate the way we live our lives and the way we organise our democracy, not because of specific foreign policy decisions. Terrorism is an international problem and we simply won’t get anywhere by insulating ourselves and abandoning our allies in the Middle East.
Barack Obama’s presidency proved very clearly that disengagement with the region makes things a great deal worse. His eagerness to withdraw US forces from Iraq in late 2011 and his indecisiveness about how to grip the crisis in Syria helped to lead to the dramatic rise of Isil in 2014.
By contrast, Donald Trump’s swift response to the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons against unarmed civilians in northern Syria in April showed he is prepared to engage decisively in the region and against the menaces that challenge the US and as its allies.
In a symbolic speech at the Arab Islamic American Summit in Riyadh attended by more than 50 Arab and Muslim leaders last month, he charted a new course for America’s role in the Middle East, one aimed at combating terrorism head-on. While he challenged the leaders present to unite and do all they can to “drive out the terrorists and drive out the extremists” themselves, the President stressed that the threat of terrorism and extremist ideology is a threat shared mutually by the Muslim world and the international community, and therefore requires close cooperation to defeat it. He indicated that America will work far more closely with its traditional Arab allies to defeat the terrorists and their ideology. During his time in Saudi Arabia, he also reaffirmed his administration’s commitment to security cooperation with the Kingdom.
The UK should broadly welcome his approach. The idea that we will prevent a repeat of the atrocities we have seen and eradicate the Isil terror threat by reigning back on our engagement with the Middle East – as Corbyn might suggest – is folly. Counter-terror intelligence co-operation with our allies in the region has saved hundreds of lives in Britain. The savage attacks we have witnessed must drive us to work more closely with our regional allies.
Theresa May recognises that the UK’s security can only be protected by working alongside Middle Eastern leaders. She understands that we will only defeat the terrorists and encourage stability in the region through strategic defence and economic co-operation.
In December 2016, the Prime Minister told the Gulf Co-operation Council’s (GCC) annual summit in Manama that she wanted to deepen defence collaboration with Gulf countries and work towards signing “an ambitious trade agreement” with them. Boris Johnson then delivered a powerful speech at the same summit, declaring that Britain is “back east of Suez” and will invest more than £3 billion in defence spending in the region over the next decade.
The new HMS Juffair navy base in Bahrain – the first permanent British naval base in the Middle East since 1971 – will be fully operational by November this year, giving Britain the capability to send larger ships to reinforce stability in the Gulf and assist in rooting out Isil extremists in the area.
By signing trade agreements and through economic cooperation with Gulf and other countries in the region, including Egypt, Britain can contribute to eradicating the terrorists in the longer term.
It is important to remember that in part, joining Isil and other terrorist organisations is akin to getting a job for often unemployed young men in the Middle East. By investing in the region and promoting local entrepreneurship, we can help create the prosperity and opportunities that will reduce the allure of Isil and other sinister groups. This will make for a safer Middle East and a safer Britain.