The visit of Air Marshall Martin Sampson, the British Chief of the Defense Staff Senior Advisor for the Middle East and North Africa, to Libya at the end of September, which coincided with the anchoring of the Royal Navy warship HMS Albion at Tripoli’s Abu Sitta naval base, demonstrates Britain’s growing involvement in Middle East crises of late. This has also clearly manifested in Britain’s many moves in pursuit of a resolution to the Libyan political crisis, its active engagement with threats in the Arabian Sea related to the crisis in Yemen, its strident opposition to the Iranian nuclear program and adoption of escalating measures against Iran, and in the turn towards relocating the British Embassy to Jerusalem. Such moves demonstrate a "Return of Britain" to the region. These moves seek to strengthen Britain’s influence, especially following Brexit, as London attempts to exert its presence apart from Europe on the world stage.
In recent months, Britain has made many bold moves in the region, the most important of which are as follows:
1. Re-involvement in the Libyan crisis: In June, the British Ambassador to Libya, Caroline Hurndall, announced the reopening of the British Embassy in Tripoli, Libya’s capital. She stated, "The reopening of the embassy is a testament to the UK’s commitment to Libya." She further confirmed that her country would work together with Libyans and the United Nations to achieve a permanent political settlement in Libya. Also, within the framework of British moves vis-à-vis Libya, on August 21, Presidential Council representative Abdullah al-Lafi received the British Ambassador for a discussion of political developments in Libya. The discussions focused on reaching agreement on a constitutional path between the House of Representatives and the state and on determining when the Libyan people’s electoral aspirations would be fulfilled.
Regarding security, the UK renewed its support for efforts to unify the military establishment, extending security and stability across all of Libya and paving the way for elections to be held. This was during a 29 September meeting between two members of the Presidential Council, Musa al-Koni and Abdullah al-Lafi, and the British Chief of the Defense Staff Senior Advisor for the Middle East and North Africa, Air Marshall Martin Sampson, which coincided with the anchoring of the Royal Navy warship HMS Albion at Tripoli’s Abu Sitta naval base for the first time in eight years. And, on 30 September, Sampson began discussions with Abdul Hamid Dbeibeh, Prime Minister of the provisional Libyan Government of National Unity, regarding technical cooperation between the Ministries of Defense of Libya and the UK.
2. Cooperation in missions to combat smuggling in the Arabian Sea: On October 10, the British Royal Navy announced the disruption of a drug smuggling operation worth more than 15 million GBP in the Arabian Sea. BBC Arabic Online reported that British forces recovered hundreds of kilograms of crystal methamphetamine. The BBC quoted Commander Claire Thompson of the HMS Montrose that, "A seizure of this size will deal a huge blow to the criminal or terrorist gangs using these illegal narcotics to fund their activity. He added, "Stopping smuggling operations and expelling terrorists and criminals from the Arabian Sea, as well as disrupting their funding lines, is vital to the safety of Britain and the world." This operation was the fifth of its kind for the Royal Navy since the beginning of the year. These operations are under the umbrella of Combined Task Force 150, in which 38 countries participate under the leadership of Saudi Arabia and which aims to preserve maritime security in the Red Sea and the Arabian Sea.
3. The turn towards relocating the British Embassy to Jerusalem: In the context of Britain’s developing moves in the Middle East region, Prime Minister Liz Truss informed her Israeli counterpart Yair Lapid during their meeting on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in September that she was considering moving her country’s embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Prior to becoming Prime Minister, Truss had stated that, if she became the head of government, she would review the UK’s decision to keep its embassy in Tel Aviv. She was apparently following in the footsteps of former US President Donald Trump, who announced the relocation of the US Embassy to Jerusalem in 2018 (a step also taken by Honduras, Guatemala, and Kosovo). The British Prime Minister’s announcement met significant resistance and criticism from political circles Britain, the West, and the Arab World.
4. British support for the Iranian protests: The UK has actively engaged with developments inside Iran related to growing protests that have followed the killing of a young Kurdish woman, Mahsa Amini. On 21 September, the British Foreign Office called on the Iranian government to investigate Amini’s death with rigor and transparency. On 10 October, Britain announced sanctions on senior Iranian security officials and the so-called "Morality Police."
Noting that the "Religious Police" have used the threat of detention and violence to control what Iranian women wear and to monitor their behavior in public places, Britain announced a travel ban and asset freeze targeting Gholamreza Soleimani, the head of the Basij force, and added five leaders of the Basij and the Iranian police to the British sanctions list. The Foreign Office stated, "The Basij force, NAJA Special Forces Unit and the wider Iranian police have played a central role in the crackdown on protests across Iran in recent weeks, as well as the fuel-related protests in 2019."
In response to these sanctions, the Iranian Foreign Ministry summoned British Ambassador to Tehran Simon Shercliff. In a statement, the Iranian Foreign Ministry said, "The ambassador was informed of Iranian authorities’ strident protest against the UK’s interference in Iranian internal matters; this interference was resoundingly criticized." The Director General of the Western Europe Department at the Iranian Foreign Ministry stated, "The Iranian republic considers the arbitrary sanctions announced by Britain to be distorted and valueless." He added, "Iran reserves the right to take countermeasures."
5. Britain’s hardening position towards the Iranian nuclear program: In July, responsible officials in the British government warned that the Iranian nuclear agreement that the UK had planned to sign had destabilized the Middle East. They proposed a stricter monitoring regime on Iranian nuclear activities, reimposing sanctions, tightening the economic screw on Tehran until it is ready to countenance serious proposals, and designating the Iranian Revolutionary Guard as a proscribed terrorist organization (as the United States did). On 10 September, Britain, France, and Germany jointly announced that Iran’s recent positioning did not comply with its international commitments, giving rise to serious doubts as to its intention to return to the nuclear agreement. Iranian regarded this three-country statement as unconstructive and an obstacle to Iran’s expressed good intentions with regards to the negotiations.
6. Ongoing action with regards to the crisis in Yemen: Britain remains among the international actors involved in the Yemen portfolio. Despite its support of the legitimate Yemeni government since the outbreak of the crisis—London and Washington played a leading role in the 2015 adoption of UN Security Council Resolution 2216, which confirmed the legitimacy of the Yemeni government—Britain has also sought an opening with the Houthi militia as a tool to influence the development of the conflict. This may be what the British Ambassador to Yemen, Richard Oppenheim was hinting at in May when he mentioned a "draft British resolution as an alternative to UN Security Council’s Resolution 2216" and noted that "the Security Council is prepared to adopt a new resolution when there is real consensus on a political settlement between the parties in Yemen." Britain is also part of the quartet of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and the United States, which aim to coordinate positions with regards to Yemen.
Britain’s unfolding actions with regards to the region’s crises generally aim to reestablish Britain’s active presence in the region. The most important motivations behind this turn are as follows:
1. Exploiting the political crisis of some countries: One of the principal considerations behind Britain’s turn towards increasing its involvement in the region’s crises is evident in the tendency to take advantage of political crises in some countries to advance the mission of reestablishing Britain’s influence in the region in the context of strategic geopolitical competition between global powers. This is epitomized by the Libyan situation. The British approach to Libya concentrates on maintaining channels of communication with all Libyan factions (as opposed to partisanship, which could threaten Britain’s interests in Libya) while simultaneously trying to achieve the maximum possible gains in politics, security, and the economy.
2. Reshaping the UK’s post-Brexit international role: Since Britain’s exit from the European Union ("Brexit"), the UK has moved towards developing British power and widening the range of Britain’s international influence, in order to guarantee and secure London’s strategic interest. Britain clearly expressed this turn with the so-called Integrated National Strategy for Security and Defense. Within this framework, Britain regards its increasing involvement in Middle East crises as a pillar in its strategy of strengthening relationships and its presence in strategic regions such as the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea and the Mediterranean.
3. Extreme closeness between Israel and the Conservative Party: The British Prime Minister’s statement regarding the turn towards relocating the British Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, and likewise her hardline position on the nuclear agreement set to be signed with Iran, are linked to the extreme closeness between the British Conservative Party and Israel. Since the ascension of the Conservative Party to power, successive governments have competed in their degree of closeness to Israel—to the extent that Truss said in a party meeting that she was a "Zionist and a strong supporter of Israel." Particular positions on relocating the embassy to Jerusalem and the nuclear agreement with Iran may be understood in this light. Britain is taking into consideration Israeli fears and the danger that the Iranian nuclear program poses to Israeli national security alongside British interests in the Middle East.
4. Securing Britain’s strategic interests in the region: Britain has significant strategic, security, and economic interests in the region. Britain obtains approximately 90% of its oil imports from the Middle East, the Red Sea is a principal entry point for British merchant vessels, and Britain has numerous investment interests in countries in the region. Increasing involvement in the region’s political and security crises is foundational to securing these vital interests, especially in light of the threats that they face (whether related to disputes with Russia, to non-state armed actors, or to maritime security).
5. Dynamics of competition with other European powers: British moves in the Middle East cannot be viewed in isolation from the fact of competition with other European powers, especially France. Disputes between the two countries are increasing, especially regarding illegal migration in the English Channel and fishing rights in waters shared between the two countries. The AUKUS pact between Britain, the United States, and Australia may be the most important indicator of the increase in disputes between France and Britain. It cannot be ignored that this sort of competition in Franco-British relations will reverberate in the Middle East in one way or another. Britain seeks to undermine and check French moves (and perhaps also those of Germany) with the aim of strengthening its own role in the region.
By way of a conclusion, it may be said that Britain’s increasing involvement with crises in the region is principally connected to a strategy of reestablishing British alliances with countries in the region in order to protect Britain’s vital political, security, and economic interests—all within the context of the aftereffects of Britain’s exit from the European Union. Advancing this strategy may face fundamental challenges, as some countries in the region may lack confidence in Britain potentially assuming a key role in the region (and its numerous issues).
Furthermore, Britain’s historical legacy in the region may limit London’s room for maneuver. This issue has manifested, for example, in the case of Sudan. On 6 September, Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, president of the provisional Sudanese National Sovereignty Council, requested an official apology from Britain for what he called "the crime of colonialism" during the period of British rule in Sudan. In parallel to all of these matters, it is also possible that the economic crisis that Britain is facing, its political instability, and the demands of some members of the Commonwealth to separate from the British Crown, will place limits on Britain’s actions in the Middle East.