It is impossible to predict with any accuracy the political, economic and social developments in Brexit Britain over the course of this year. But whatever happens, there will be repercussions for the Middle East. It would do the region well to understand what they might be.
Britain will emerge from all Brexit scenarios weaker and poorer. The Conservative government, seen as the Brexit party, will be held responsible. The long train of consequences might plausibly lead to an early general election. And Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn, promising a return to “social equality” through re-nationalization and old-school tax-and-spend socialism, could become prime minister. But even if none of this happens, as leader of the opposition, Corbyn is well positioned to take power at the scheduled general election in 2022.
For the Middle East, it is the possible elevation of Corbyn as a result of Brexit, rather than Brexit itself, that is more important. Should the Conservatives survive in the short term, governments in the Middle East will be encountering a UK that is more politically introspective as it contends with a worsening domestic economic scene, but at the same time desperate to preserve and enhance trading relationships to compensate for the loss of the certainties of the European single market.
It is true that Middle East governments have shown themselves in recent years more inclined to write their own geopolitical scripts, looking eastward, rather than westward, for trading relationships and strategic alliances. The ambivalence of the Obama years toward traditional Middle East alliances, especially concerning the Gulf monarchies and dominant Sunni powers, has forged a new appetite for political, military and economic self-determination and adventurism.
But the UK is still a friend worth having. It wields considerable diplomatic and economic power, especially in those parts of the Middle East influenced by its colonial past.
So how best to understand the differences in approach that might come with a Labour-led government? The Blair/Cameron years were characterized by a doctrine of humanitarian intervention and unfaltering loyalty to the alliance with the US. As we have seen with the invasion of Iraq and interventions in Libya and Syria, this policy failed. Both, however, believed in the importance of close strategic and trading ties with their Arab allies, recognizing that the ensuing economic and security dividends outweighed concerns by NGOs, domestic politicians and pressure groups about autocracy and human rights.
Corbyn has never supported foreign intervention. But he is a supporter of possible sanctions against Saudi Arabia over the Yemen war. He has been accused of sympathy for Hamas, whose representatives, along with those of Hezbollah, he has described as “friends.” He has appeared on Iranian Press TV and has been pictured making the Muslim Brotherhood “Rabbi’ah” salute.
Still, it would be wrong to label him an extremist, as the Labour leadership’s approach mirrors that of the mainstream left in the UK. It does represent a stark departure from current Whitehall priorities, however.
Britain’s leftist world view roughly is as follows: America is usually seen as suspect, as are many of the foreign-policy actions of its key ally, Britain. Israel is becoming an apartheid state maintained by US support. Saudi Arabia, close Gulf allies and other Sunni powers are perceived as puppets of the US. Iran has its issues, but these are largely due to — you guessed it — US aggression. Acts of terror in the West, this understanding suggests, are appalling and worthy of condemnation, but are often the legacy of Western foreign-policy decisions, neo-imperialism and the post-colonial legacy.
However, Corbyn, even in the eyes of some of his most ardent critics, is believed to be a man of principle and no fool. Many opinion formers implacably opposed to his policies recognize in his ascendancy a welcome reintroduction of political “clear blue water” between the two main British parties.
The reality of gaining power may well lead Corbyn to pursue a course more consistent with his predecessors. Banning arms sales to Saudi Arabia, for instance, could bring down the wrath of the unions on which his party relies for cash and support. A post-election briefing by the security services on the nature and extent of intelligence sharing with that country might also serve to dilute his current stance.
But Corbyn’s world view is one based on a neo-Marxist doctrine of class struggle. He was said to be at his happiest engaging with the revolutionary movements of Latin America. Yet, recent events in the Middle East cannot easily be shoehorned into the largely secular revolutionary narratives of the victims of Argentina’s “Dirty War,” for example.
Today, violent Islamism, rather than outrage at dispossession, land rights or social injustice, underpins the worst terrorist excesses in the Middle East and the West. Right across the Islamist spectrum runs a belief that all things in the secular sphere take second place to religious revelation. This is where the tidy social doctrines of the left can lose their way.
Accepting this involves a more nuanced approach to Middle East affairs and one that requires more consultation with those powers and agencies currently on the wrong side of Corbyn’s foreign-policy ledger.
Those powers and agencies must in their turn be more inclined to engage with the Labour leader. The cry often goes up that Corbyn is beyond reach, an extremist hoodwinked and seduced by the clever arguments of leftists and heavily disguised Islamists. But many of his positions are shared by many UK opinion formers, old Labour stalwarts and his new youth intake, as well as large parts of academia. Middle East policy-makers would do well to recognize this.
Martin Newland is a former editor of the Daily Telegraph in London, The National in Abu Dhabi and deputy editor of the National Post in Canada. He consults on media, risk and reputational issues.