Brexit's Effects Will Ripple Into UK's Foreign Policy in the Gulf

02/08/2016 16:30 | Updated 02 August 2016

Boris Johnson's new job as British Foreign Secretary came as a shock surprise to many, but Theresa May's new premiership mark the beginning of the end of the UK's whiplash political crisis, and the UK's entry into the long, drawn out political crisis that is leaving the European Union. But what does that all mean for the UK's Middle East policy?

A clue lies in Boris Johnson's Telegraph column, in which he wrote in 2013: "Tony Blair never visited Qatar once, even though it was a British protectorate until 1971. Well, we are making up for that now."

The UK government is undergoing unprecedented scrutiny into its policies in the Middle East: the Chilcot report exposed just how misguided and wrong the decision to invade Iraq was, casting a shadow on Cameron's own intervention in Libya. Meanwhile, June 2016 saw the first High Court hearing on a case against the government for selling arms to Saudi Arabia - arms which have been used in its war in Yemen, where the kingdom is credibly accused of war crimes.

The era of intervention is coming to a close at a critical juncture for Britain. The decision to leave the EU will affect the UK's capability to act a global power at a time when the UK is pivoting to expand its influence in the Persian Gulf region and fill the gap that the United States' slow retreat is leaving.

An immediate repercussion to Brexit is the weak negotiating position it places on Britain when it comes to trade deals with other countries, with the two-year negotiations time limit putting the UK up against the clock. Among big investors who the new Foreign and International Trade Secretaries will be eyeing are Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar - countries which the UK could become indebted to.

In June, Saudi Arabia strong-armed the UN with threats to pull funding worth $100m unless their names were removed from a blacklist of countries violating children's rights, having been placed there for their aggressive, untargeted bombing in Yemen. Threatened with a funding black hole, the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon acquiesced. Earlier this year, Saudi Arabia also warned they would sell off hundreds of billions in American assets if the US Congress passed a bill on 9/11 allowing public investigation into the kingdom's role in the terror attack.

Theresa May's government will face the same issue. Saudi Arabia can come down hard on the UK for any controversies - such as the High Court case on arms sales - which displease them.

Under David Cameron, the UK was complicit in empowering authoritarianism. The government's response to the execution of Shia cleric and dissident Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr was muddled. Government responses to torture in the Gulf is regularly weak, even when the victims are British. Philip Hammond - then Foreign Secretary - praised political reforms in Bahrain in May 2016, on the same day that a politician's prison sentence on charges related to his speech were increased from four years to nine. This was no mistake - see for instance how a UK-funded Bahrain police ombudsman failed utterly to protect a torture victim from receiving the death penalty; the UK hails the same watchdog as a success.

Two months ago, my organisation the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy revealed that Bahrain has "gifted" the construction of a new Royal Navy base, Britain's first in the Persian Gulf since 1971. Such deals reveal the risks of the UK becoming indebted to, and even reliant on, authoritarian kingdoms. These countries' main role in the region has been to contribute to the same instabilities which the UK has helped cause and has been unable - or unwilling - to resolve.

Until now, the UK has been shielded by the failures of its interventions, but Brexit has left the UK exposed. Thousands of refugees continue to stream out of Iraq, destabilised both by the 2003 invasion and the total absence of a post-war reconstruction programme. Thousands more come through Libya, David Cameron's failure. The refugee crisis has been exacerbated by thirteen years of British interventionism.

It would be right for the UK to take greater responsibility for the effects of its interventions - where President Obama has called the aftermath of Libya was the "worst mistake" of his presidency and criticised the UK's and France's contribution to that "shit show", David Cameron avoided admitting responsibility for the anarchy which came after his bombing campaigns. Theresa May must take a more honest approach.

But the greater risk for the UK now is that the uncertainty faced will see negative trends in its foreign policy entrench and dominate during the first post-Brexit years. It may seem economically desirable to accept further "gifts", like the Royal Navy base, and investments from Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the Emirates, despite all the strings that come attached, and continue to be complicit in dictatorship. These are countries as repressive as the Saddam regime the UK helped remove.

Cozying up to them is the wrong choice, and would indebt the UK to some of the most authoritarian and poisonous regimes in the region and the world.