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What Could The UK's Role In Long-Term Middle East Peace Look Like?

Lord Cameron addressed the House of Lords on Tuesday evening (Alamy)

8 min read

The Foreign Office has met with a delegation from Yemen to discuss the UK’s role in peace settlements in the wider Middle East, as diplomats and parliamentarians urge the UK government to set out its long-term strategy for the region.

Negotiations aimed at brokering a ceasefire in the Israel-Gaza war appear to have stalled, despite hopes that this week would see a breakthrough. The Iran-backed Houthi movement from Yemen continues to cause disruption to shipping in the Red Sea, with the UK and US launching their fourth round of joint airstrikes against the group last week. 

While much of UK political discourse is focused on the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Gaza, many parliamentarians and experts on the region are concerned about the conflict’s potential threat to stability across the wider Middle East. The Foreign Office (FCDO) is therefore engaged in diplomacy with representatives from a range of nations, with questions being raised as to what could happen next if a ceasefire in Gaza is reached.

A delegation from the Southern Transition Council (STC), a secessionist organisation in South Yemen which has members in Yemen’s internationally recognised government executive, met with the FCDO and backbench MPs last week in an attempt to urge the UK to set out more of a long-term strategy when it comes to Yemen and the wider Middle East region. While the Houthi rebels control much of the northwest of Yemen, the STC is one of multiple factions which wish to govern the south of the country.

Amr Al-Bidh, the STC’s Special Representative of the President for Foreign Affairs, told PoliticsHome that he believed the UK’s approach was too centred on an assumption that a ceasefire in Gaza would settle conflicts elsewhere in the region.

“There is no strategic thinking of how to solve this problem, it's always just week by week,” he said.

“Some of them think it is related to Gaza, that if this will stop then this will stop… But the UK needs to think about the wider region and the peace process, how that will work.

“The UK has played a role, and they can have even more of a role, they are the penholder of the UN Security Council when it comes to Yemen. Everyone is sitting in the chair, but no-one wants to put something on the table.”

Speaking at a debate in the House of Lords on Tuesday, Foreign Secretary Lord David Cameron defended the UK's peacemaking efforts, but said "we must think what more we can do to surge peacemaking and peacekeeping".

"A number of noble Lords made points about strategy... I want to make the point to those who said they are worried about our ambition in terms of diplomacy that Britain still has the third biggest network of embassies, high commissions and missions around the world. In fact, we have just said that we will open a new one in East Timor, and not every country does that.

"There was a lot of discussion about the future of the UN. We are in favour of UN reform, but I say to noble Lords that if we want to see a rules-based order, and countries obeying those rules, there are times when the UN Security Council cannot deliver because of the Russian veto and the Chinese veto, and there are times when you need coalitions to come together to help make that happen."

Lord Tariq Ahmad, the UK’s Minister of State for the Middle East and United Nations, said that the government recognised there were “many brutal conflicts and human rights violations” taking place across the world and that therefore it was important for the UK to be a leading force.

“It's important that we strengthen our work in multilateral organisations including the UN,” he said.

“Our permanent role as a member of the Security Council is key as well as being a leading ally within the expanding NATO, but we are also looking at new partnerships to see how we reinvigorate the Commonwealth and the new alliances such as strategic dialogue within ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations).”

He added that using the UK’s “global convening power” and “working closely with old friends and new ones” would help to address growing international tensions. 

Multiple experts, however, have criticised the government for lacking a long-term strategy across the Middle East. Dr Elisabeth Kendall, an Arabic and Islamic Studies expert, previously said it was widely recognised that the UK was “no longer batting its weight” and former Middle East minister Tobias Ellwood told PoliticsHome that the government should “bother to lean in and understand the geopolitics of [Yemen] and try to finally end the civil war”. 

Houthi protest
Houthi followers took part in demonstration against US-led airstrikes (Alamy)

Baraa Shiban, associate fellow with the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) think tank, told PoliticsHome that he felt the UK has “no policy on Yemen”.

“The UK and the US are usually short-sighted, there is no long-term strategy,” he said.

“The UK can make more of an effort to work with Yemen as a whole entity. If we see the Yemeni state eroding, that could be bad for everyone… We can ignore the region but the problems are not going away. We can say we support a peaceful transition, but we need something more consistent.”

The STC’s Al-Bidh said that there was a recognition that the UK was one of the only Western countries able to understand the “nuances” in the region and that he felt the appointment of former prime minister Lord David Cameron as foreign secretary had been a welcome change, having met Cameron since he took on the role.

“To meet someone at that high level who understands the nuances of the situation in Yemen, this is something that's impressive,” he said.

“We've seen the effect, the weight the UK has back in the region. No foreign minister is meeting him, they are all prime ministers even though he's not a prime minister.”

While the STC delegation agreed Cameron had improved the UK’s diplomatic weight, they felt the UK still needed to be more proactive in setting out its role in the future of Yemen, Gaza, and other Middle East countries.

Mohamed Alsahimi, Head of the STC’s UK Office, said that the high level of ministerial churn in the UK made it more “difficult” to engage. Cameron is the fourth foreign secretary in as many years, the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs Office having been created in 2020.

“When we come to meet someone, it's a new person, so we have to go through the whole thing all over again… we need time for them to build both understanding and compassion,” Alsahimi said.

“In a way that has minimised the influence of UK foreign policy.”

Abdy Yeganeh, a former British diplomat for the Foreign Office and now policy director at non-profit organisation Independent Diplomat, said that he had seen the impact of cutbacks limiting the ability to develop and retain experts within the FCDO. 

He also raised the importance of the UK in helping to facilitate the peace process in Yemen. 

“The UK is very closely aligned in working with the UN’s ongoing research, the UK has quite nuanced relationships in the region, that’s why the UK’s role is important.”

He told PoliticsHome that a number of MPs were trying to ensure that Parliament could play that scrutiny role in getting government policy to look at the Middle East as a whole and consider a more coherent strategy on Yemen and Iran as well as Gaza.

“If there is a deal between Israel and Hamas, how can you then use that to feed into the Yemen peace process?,” he questioned. 

“It can't be exactly what it was before, there has to be some kind of recalibration to it. 

Conservative MP Royston Smith, who is a member of the Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee, echoed this view, telling PoliticsHome that the UK needed to live up to its “responsibilities” in the region as a former colonial power. 

“[Israeli Prime Minister] Benjamin Netanyahu has said things will never be the same again, and I suspect he is right but not in the way he intended,” he said, suggesting that Arab countries themselves, as well as the West, would have to “step up” to support a two-state solution between Gaza and Israel.

“Who is going to support all of that? If we support Israel and Palestine once and for all there would be no reason why we could not then unlock the Abraham Accords properly and achieve stability in the region.

“We have history with the region. If we do not live up to our responsibilities then the Russians and Chinese will fill the vacuum.”

Addressing the foreign secretary in the House of Lords on Tuesday, multiple peers urged Cameron to share the UK’s long term plans to help to facilitate peace across the Middle East. 

Baroness Angela Smith, Leader of the Opposition in the House of Lords asked him to clarify at what stage the government consider the airstrikes against the Houthis to be a sustained campaigns, and asked what diplomatic efforts were taking place in the region in case that threshold was crossed.

Lord Peter Ricketts, a former senior diplomat, said it was “encouraging” that the Gulf Arab states were now starting to become more engaged in thinking about the future of the Palestinian people, as they would have a “central role in the running of Gaza in the future alongside a new Palestinian leadership”. However, he also called for more clarity on the UK’s position on what this future could look like.

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