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Labour Middle East Council Launched To "Turn A New Page" In Foreign Policy

The Labour Middle East Council is being set up to advise the Labour Party on UK-Middle East relations (Alamy)

5 min read

Exclusive: A new initiative is being launched to "turn a new page" on relations between a potential future Labour government and countries across the Middle East, as senior diplomats predict a "paradigm shift" in British foreign policy.

The Labour Middle East Council (LMEC) is officially launching on Wednesday, with the aim of "facilitating dialogue, enhancing mutual understanding, and fostering partnership" between the UK and countries in the Middle East and North Africa.

The Council, which is not an affiliated Labour socialist society, will be led by well-renowned Labour figures and experienced diplomats and experts. Working with policymakers and communities, LMEC has set out that it will work towards developing and advocating for policies that "support peace, partnership and prosperity at home and abroad".

There was a previous organisation with the same name, set up by Christopher Mayhew, a former Labour MP, in 1969. PoliticsHome understands there is no connection between the new LMEC and the previous Council, which lobbied for Palestinian causes and is no longer operational.

The new organisation is launching as tensions continue to rise across the Middle East. The Conservative government is under pressure to defend UK ships in the Red Sea from Houthi attacks while not contributing to further escalations of various violent conflicts across the Middle East. The government's Armed Forces Minister has told The House magazine that the UK could send an aircraft carrier in response to Houthi attacks in the Red Sea when the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower – an American carrier currently present in the region – returns home.

Hoping to represent a commitment to a "new era" of "constructive and cooperative" UK involvement in Middle Eastern affairs that will be "guided by Labour values", the establishment of LMEC comes at a time when the Labour Party is also facing intense scrutiny within its own ranks over its approach to the war in Gaza and the wider Middle East.

Labour sources told The Guardian that party leader Keir Starmer’s office has been carrying out polling of British Muslim voters to assess whether any damage has been done to their core voter base by the row over the party’s position.

The leading figures involved with LMEC might hope it can go some way in addressing the complex relationship the Labour Party has with the region, stating that it aims to "build upon historical ties while acknowledging past challenges".

Cherie Blair CBE, KC, wife of former Labour prime minister Tony Blair, is supporting the new organisation as Honorary Patron, and veteran Labour MP Siobhain McDonagh will be LMEC's Labour Parliamentary Party Liaison. Miran Hassan, current director of global consulting firm Actum, has been appointed as LMEC's director.

It will be co-chaired by Lord McNicol, who was Labour's General Secretary between 2011 and 2018, and Sir William Patey, who is the former British Ambassador to multiple Middle East countries including Afghanistan (2010-2012), Saudi Arabia (2007-2010), Iraq (2005-2006) and Sudan (2002-2005), as well as Head of the Middle East Department at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office from 1999-2002.

Sir William Patey, co-chair of the Council and former British Ambassador, wrote in The House magazine that with a Labour government expected after the next general election, the LMEC would come at a "critical" time.

"As the Labour Party faces the increasing prospect of governance, a paradigm shift in British foreign policy is imminent," he said.

"The establishment of the Labour Middle East Council (LMEC) is both timely and critical, aimed at enhancing the Party's understanding of, and engagement with, the region."

He added that the work carried out by LMEC would be "collaborative" in nature.

"As a nation with deep-rooted historical connections to the Middle East, the UK has a unique role to play in fostering a stable and prosperous region," he said.

"The Labour Middle East Council is our initiative to harness these connections for a positive future. We will work collaboratively to address pressing global issues, from climate change to technological advancement, ensuring that our approach is always one of respect, partnership, and shared progress."

Lord McNicol said LMEC would help a potential future Labour government to fundamentally shift the nature of UK relations with the Middle East.

"The Labour Middle East Council is not just an extension of our party's values; it is a testament to our commitment to internationalism and our belief in the power of dialogue," he said.

"We recognise the complexities of the Middle East and the UK's historical role in the region. It's time to turn a new page, one where we engage positively and constructively for the mutual benefit of all."

Dr Elisabeth Kendall, an Arabic and Islamic Studies expert who chairs a grassroots NGO in east Yemen and has worked with and advised multiple countries and organisations on military strategy, told PoliticsHome she believed the establishment of LMEC was a "really important and welcome step".

"The UK desperately needs a serious body to provide a consistent and respected point of engagement with the Middle East," she said.

"Currently, we lack a single respected entity that comprises depth and breadth of knowledge, expertise and experience and that can forge and foster relationships over the long-term. If the LMEC can fill that void, then it will be welcomed both by those of us in the UK who know and care deeply about the region and by our interlocutors in the region itself."

She added that she believed other countries were ahead of the UK in how they build and maintain relationships in the Middle East.

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