Tensions are rising in the Gulf with Iran on one side, and Saudi Arabia and their Arab allies on the other. After a decade of neglect, international attention is once again focused on the region that has been the source of numerous terror attacks in the West and continues to be critically important to the global economy through its oil production.
Published on in mid-March, the government’s Integrated Review of security, defence, development and foreign policy points to both the destabilisation of the region caused by Iran and the continued existence of Islamist terror as major threats to Britain’s security, and goes so far as to assess that a CBRN (chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear) attack is likely to happen before 2030.
It is a bleak picture in the Middle East, with ISIL insurgencies continuing in Iraq and its neighbour Syria, the damage caused by brutal crackdowns of the Arab Spring, a civil war in Yemen, and infighting between neighbours.
Frankly, Western involvement has not helped. The US, Britain, and our allies have blown hot and cold for four decades with a mix of invasions, appeasement, ill-fated regime change, backing strong-man leaders, supporting revolutionary movements, and more recently pulling troops out.
The trail of destruction left behind leaves no doubt that the West’s short-term thinking has been a mistake on an epic scale that has left the UK at risk, and that is a problem recognised by the Integrated Review. Among the seven-point plan for reducing the risk of terror attacks on British soil sits a determination to “address the conditions that give rise to terrorism overseas through our support to open societies and our efforts to tackle conflict and instability”.
This is an area where Britain – newly unleashed from the shackles of the EU; independent, global facing, ready to do business, and with the wisdom of centuries – can step in.
Because the answer to the problems in the Gulf is not the short-termist interventions and non-interventions that have marked the last four decades of policy in the region, but something much more long-term; instinctively right to Britain more than perhaps any other country on earth.
What the Gulf and wider Middle East needs is a sustainable path towards stability and something resembling liberal democracy – slow and steady as she goes. It is time for the international community to recognise the damage done by treating democratisation as a cure-all in Iraq and elsewhere, and switch to a smarter approach that puts in place the foundations for a liberal society before taking the leap to elections.
The Integrated Review highlights the critical importance of strong institutions, law and order, and effective, transparent, and accountable governments, and sets out a system of independent sanctions to target human rights abuse and corruption. But it does not quite grasp the critical issue, and that is that it is no good judging the state of developing countries against our own moral principles as they will always come up short. Instead, the objective should be progress, sustainable progress with no backsliding.
Just like in Britain’s history, the Gulf states need evolution, not revolution. This is a process that will take decades of painstaking effort to get the pacing right, and will involve building strong institutions – courts, fair policing, bureaucracy, civil society, and a free press – while slowly liberalising citizen rights and their economies.
Fortunately, this is not an entirely new approach; it is one that some of Britain’s allies in the Gulf are already taking. All they need now is for us to reward their progress and use it as a model for others.
Take Oman, for example. Over five decades the country diversified its economy, developed healthcare and education, and built infrastructure including airports and ports. In 2003, elections were first held for the Consultative Assembly, which has legislative and oversight powers, and this year new Sultan Haitham bin Tariq Al Said introduced a Basic Law which moves the country closer to a constitutional monarchy like our own.
Another ally is Qatar, which is making gradual progress on women’s rights, building a high-tech business park intended to become ‘the Middle East’s Silicon Valley’, and cooperating with the West on defence matters, including hosting an American military base and flying joint missions with the RAF. Qatar has also scheduled elections for later this year, where men and women aged 18 and over will be able to choose 30 out of 45 of the members of its Consultative Assembly, and the country continues to defend news network Al Jazeera from attacks by other Gulf states.
Given that our freedom from the EU allows us to use trade deals as an incentive for progress, and our re-evaluation of international aid means that we can concentrate on helping countries build strong institutions rather than making cash transfers, it is safe to say that Britain is better placed to take the global lead on this new approach to the Gulf than ever before.
The cost of getting it wrong again, risking the revival of ISIL, the kind of vacuum of power that allows Al Qaeda to flourish, and the loss of British lives in another ground invasion, is too big to contemplate. As the inter-related risks of nuclear weapons, war and terror pulls global attention back to the Gulf, Britain should use the combination of the wisdom of centuries and our new-found independence to nurture sustainable development in the Gulf – and make our streets safer in the process.