Tuesday, 19 May 2015

A Lawrence of Arabia Cameron won’t be

The Daily Star
Tuesday, May 19, 2015
By Michael Glackin

The headline in London’s Financial Times neatly captured how important British Prime Minister David Cameron’s election victory will be for the Middle East. According to the newspaper, Cameron’s surprise outright win, ending his need for a coalition with the smaller Liberal Democrats, “reignited London’s property market.” Middle East buyers were leading the charge to purchase multimillion-dollar homes within hours of the results.

And that, I would suggest, will be the extent of this election’s impact on the Middle East. Since Cameron’s humiliation in the disastrous House of Commons vote in 2013, when Parliament vetoed his attempt to launch a limited missile strike against President Bashar Assad’s regime, he has avoided foreign affairs.

In the face of Russian revanchism and the increasing mayhem spreading across the Middle East, Cameron has been invisible. None of this will change under his new government.

It’s a far cry from Cameron’s tub thumping appearances in Egypt, just days after the fall of President Hosni Mubarak in 2011, and months later in Libya, after Moammar Gadhafi was toppled. Today, Cameron’s determination to stand aloof from the shambles that Libya has become is most clearly seen in his new government’s attitude to the North African and Middle Eastern migrants dying in their thousands in the Mediterranean, most of whom are victims of Libya-based people-trafficking gangs.

Within days of the election, Home Secretary Theresa May firmly ruled out British participation in a European Union quota scheme to resettle the migrants – most of whom landed in Italy or Greece – among the bloc’s 28 member states. She insisted that the plan would only “encourage” more migrants to try to reach Europe and called on the EU to send them back to the shores of Libya from whence they came.

It’s an improvement on the previous policy of allowing the migrants to drown in the Mediterranean.

But considering the United Kingdom’s responsibility for the current mayhem in Libya, not to mention Syria, from where many of the migrants have traveled, it is shameful. In fact only 143 of the most vulnerable Syrian refugees have been resettled in the U.K. Based on May’s comments that number is extremely unlikely to increase under the new government.

On the wider regional front, Cameron will continue to avoid getting involved in a strategy to tackle problems arising from the so-called “failed-state wars” in Syria, Iraq and Yemen, or the increasing extremism and sectarian violence they have unleashed. The U.K. will also remain a marginal contributor to the air campaign against ISIS.

The new government will however introduce tougher anti-terrorism laws at home, including the “snoopers’ charter,” which will dramatically increase the security services’ already extensive surveillance powers.

The British government will, of course, be involved in negotiating the final terms of a potential nuclear accord with Iran as part of the P5+1 group of powers. If a deal with Tehran is finalized, it is likely to result in wider negotiations on regional security. This will have far-reaching consequences for the West’s relationship with Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies, as well as Iran and its proxies, in Syria, Lebanon and Yemen. But it is, frankly, laughable to talk of a regional security deal that would see the U.K. becoming one of the guarantors of a U.S.-led security system for the Gulf states, with the Western powers pledging to respond to any military attack against its Gulf allies.

Based on the recent actions of both London and Washington, and even allowing for Saudi Arabia being the U.K.’s most lucrative arms market, such a guarantee would be token at best, and most likely worthless. After all, the U.K. (along with the United States and Russia) is a guarantor of Ukrainian sovereignty through the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, and that has offered scant comfort to Ukraine in the face of Russian aggression.

Meanwhile, Cameron will continue to refuse to support tougher measures to hold Israel accountable for illegal West Bank settlement building. His bizarre and contradictory position of supporting a two-state solution while insisting a Palestine state should not be recognized until it is “most useful to the peace process” will not change.

Ultimately, Cameron’s priorities will be keeping the U.K. together in the face of the huge surge in support for the Scottish Nationalist Party, which wants Scotland to be independent. Oddly enough, the SNP, now the U.K.’s third largest party, is the only mainstream political group that supports the immediate recognition of a Palestinian state and has called on the government to upgrade the political representation of Palestine in the U.K. to a fully functioning embassy.

However, while the SNP won almost all the Scottish seats in the British Parliament, and controls the separate Scottish Parliament, it has absolutely no influence over British foreign policy.

Membership of the EU will be the other defining issue of British politics, ahead of a referendum on the matter, which Cameron has committed to hold by 2017. The prime minister, who will campaign for the U.K. to remain in the EU, will have to devote all his energies to renegotiating the terms of Britain’s membership to convince voters to back his position.

Meanwhile, as the Middle East continues to unravel, the well-heeled at least can look forward to purchasing an up-market London bolt hole. The rest, particularly those refugees scattered across Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan, and Iraq, will have to learn to live with Britain’s Middle East inertia.

Michael Glackin, is former managing editor of Beirut based daily newspaper THE DAILY STAR.A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on May 19, 2015, on page 7.

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