Can the British lion roar again?

19 December 2003
In 1945, British power was at its peak in the Middle East. Libya, Egypt, Sudan, Somalia, Palestine, Jordan, five of the six members of what is now the Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC), Aden and southern Yemen and Iran were wholly or essentially under the control of the British government or the British army. But the final flourish was short-lived. The end of British power was signalled in October 1956 by Britain's collaboration with France and Israel to invade Egypt and seize the Suez canal, nationalised by the government of President Nasser.

The crisis marked the moment when the US replaced the UK as the principal power in the Middle East. Arab nationalists were embittered, British weakness was exposed and an entire generation of British officials decided a new collaborative approach to the region was required. The British lion, which once dominated the Middle East, was steadily transformed into a poodle.

British decline reached a nadir in the first half of 1990. Having helped finance the government of Saddam Hussein in its war with Iran, the UK found its client was ungrateful and restive when the conflict ended in 1988. At the end of that year, Farzad Barzoft, a British citizen of Iranian origin, and his companion, a British nurse, were charged with spying. Barzoft was sentenced to death, and despite pleas for clemency from the highest level of UK government, he was hanged in Baghdad on 15 March 1990. In a gesture of contempt mixed with brutality, the Iraqi government delivered Barzoft's body in a coffin to the British embassy.

In a response of lamentable weakness, the UK withdrew its ambassador but failed to advise its nationals that departure from Iraq was advisable. UK financial support for Iraq continued until Iraqi tanks crossed the border with Kuwait on 2 August. No Western country had more of their nationals trapped in Iraq during the Kuwait crisis.


British involvement in the war to drive Iraq from Kuwait helped restore Britain's image, but economic failure and social division at home still shaped the view from the region that Britain's Middle East day was done.

In fact, the Kuwait war was the start of a new era for the UK in the Middle East. Britain deployed forces to defend the Kurds of Iraq and provide shelter to the Shias of the same country. Under Prime Minister Tony Blair, Britain worked with the US in Bosnia and Kosovo to an extent no other nation was prepared to do. The British economy expanded strongly during the 1990s and recovered by the end of the decade its position as fourth largest in the world. British service industries, led by the City of London, flourished. At the end of 2003, about 100,000 British citizens are living and working in the GCC alone, many of them in senior positions.

Brushing off the political, diplomatic and military risks, the UK was the principal partner to the US in the invasion and occupation of Iraq. London, nevertheless, evaded the revulsion directed at Washington. It was seen as a restraining influence on America before, during and after the war. British management of southern Iraq this year has been applauded.

Clear agenda

On the Arab-Israel issue, Britain's position has been consistent, calling for a final solution based on UN Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338. British ministers and officials were calling for the creation of an independent Palestinian state years before US President Bush made it a centrepiece of his administration's approach. Britain has worked to persuade Iran to tone down its damaging rhetoric and drop actions that could be seen to be threatening to the West.

Underpinning all this are links involving tens of thousands of Britons and their counterparts throughout the region. The UK remains the country of choice for many in the Arab world for leisure, business and education.

This combination of attributes has pushed the UK's standing in the eyes of regional decision-makers to its highest level for decades. The UK is seen as a bridge to Europe and the US, a player punching above its economic weight to outclass Japan and Germany. In its willingness to use military force, Britain has left France looking second-rate. The capture of Saddam, achieved by America but made possible by British collaboration, has crowned the process of putting Britain close to the top of the heap.

The question now is this: how will the UK capitalise on its position? Should it focus on getting the Arab-Israel process moving ahead? Is the priority helping to ensure better relations between the EU and the region, particularly in economic affairs? Or should London continue to cleave close to Washington, hoping to exercise influence indirectly through the US?

There are many opportunities. But the moment for action is now. It may not come around again.

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