UK commitment to the Middle East

Foreign Office Minister Alistair Burt spoke about the UK's optimism about the prospects for the Arab Spring and the Middle East in a speech to the Middle East Association on 21 March.

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government
The Rt Hon Alistair Burt


I am truly honoured to have been invited to address such an important assembly and am delighted to do so alongside my friend, and close colleague Dr. Anwar Gargash.

Looking around the room, I am struck by the diversity of people here: businessmen and women, investors, ambassadors, and politicians; those from North Africa, from the Middle East, from the Gulf and from the UK. We have different backgrounds and different perspectives. But I believe that fundamentally, we all share a common ambition for the region: security, stability and prosperity for all.

We will all have different means of working towards that goal. But in my remarks today, let me give you the perspective of policymakers in London - the perspective of a country outside the region; but one that is nevertheless deeply connected with developments there and one which places great importance on its longstanding relationships with countries across the Middle East.

UK Commitment to the Middle East

Let me emphasise right from the off that our strengthened engagement in the region predates the Arab Spring. The Foreign Office has long believed that economically empowering people will enhance the prospects not just of their countries, but of countries such as the UK that wish to trade with them. And enhancing political participation will increase long term stability by giving citizens the means to peacefully determine their own futures.

Long before the events of last year, officials had seen the warning signs for instability in the region: a demographic youth bulge, and a lack of space for political and economic participation of citizens. Building on that analysis, but without any clue as to the date the dramatic events over the past 15 months would begin, the government launched the Arab Partnership initiative in 2010 to support the people of the region in building more open, inclusive and prosperous societies.

When this coalition government came to power nearly two years ago, we committed ourselves to devoting more energy and attention to the Emerging Powers of the world. The Middle East and Gulf was a particular priority. We wanted to move from a transactional relationship with countries there, to something deeper. We wanted to work with those nations in the region that saw their neighbourhood through a similar lens to us.

This has not only resulted in much closer political cooperation between the UK and countries such as the UAE, but has also led to a much deeper relationship all round, including trade, benefitting the government’s prosperity agenda, to which I will come later.
Forces behind the Arab Spring**

The death of Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tunisian fruit seller, vividly illustrated the importance economic and political empowerment. Mr Bouazizi worked in the town of Sidi Bouzid, which had an estimated unemployment rate of 30%. He made about £3 a day selling fruit and vegetables from a small wheelbarrow. He was harassed for years by the local police force, unable to acquire a permit through a corrupt system, and had no way of complaining to authorities who were unaccountable to the people of Tunisia.

His self-immolation was an act of desperation - desperation that was felt by people all over the region. This was at the heart of the Arab Spring: ordinary people making legitimate demands of their rulers. No doubt, the chain of events sparked by Mr Bouazizi’s death has been tumultuous. And in some parts of the region such as Syria, appalling violence and instability endures.

But I strongly believe that through their struggle, the ordinary people of the Arab World are re-laying the foundations of their future. These foundations will be more stable than their predecessors. They will be strong enough to support economic growth, legitimate government and active civil society.

Opportunities for stability and prosperity

It is important to recognise that progress towards change in the region was, however, underway before last year. A number of states had begun reform programmes of one sort or another, some for a number of years, others had not. Governance and political participation from country to country varied dramatically. The rate and direction of change therefore varied dramatically.

So each state had different starting points, different paths and different paces. We have learned very quickly, as if we needed to, that each state, each people, is different. The Arab Spring acted as a catalyst for change in a number of states. Its effects were by no means homogenous, but in most cases, it has helped to spur reforms that have made governments more accountable and open. And although change will be very different throughout the region, no country will be immune in the long-term.

By making governments more representative, they inevitably pay greater attention to the needs and demands of their citizens. They allow people to have a say in the way that they are governed without violence or fear of retribution. So it makes countries more stable in the long run.

Open and representative governments also make for better decision making. By allowing people to openly discuss their interests, ideas are tested and challenged until only the strongest survive. And governments which are representative of their citizens are more likely to make decisions in the common interest.

It is therefore perhaps unsurprising that empirically, accountable and legitimate governments tend to be more prosperous and spread wealth more evenly across their societies than autocracies. And freedom of thought and expression breeds innovative ideas and economic opportunities. Those economic opportunities tend to be fairly distributed because no group is marginalised.

I would also like to emphasise that there has been one consistent loser from the Arab Spring. Though terrorist organisations tried to hijack protests, commandeer reform movements and assert their relevance to change, they were completely marginalised. Al Qaeda’s overtures were completely rejected by the people in the streets and squares, underlining the fact that militancy has no part to play in the region’s future.

So this government remains optimistic about the prospects of the Arab Spring. We believe that it raises the prospect of the greatest enlargement of human freedom since the end of the Cold War. And we believe that such freedom will contribute to the stability and prosperity on the doorstep of our own neighbourhood.

**UK involvement

This is most definitely in our own national interest. And it is in line with the values that we are committed to upholding. As such, we want to support the changes that are underway in any capacity that is useful. But we are fully aware that the protests and movements for change behind the Arab Spring are indigenous and organic. This is what makes them so powerful. We certainly don’t want to undermine this with our foreign engagement. These are Arab revolutions, not ours. Change has been led by the people of the region and it is not for us to dictate the pace or nature of that change.

But there are ways that we have been able to provide support to reform movements across the Middle East and North Africa. Through our Arab Partnership initiative, we have committed £110 million over four years in support of political and economic reform. This initiative is flexible and adaptive. It recognises that conditions are different in every country from the West of the Maghreb to the East of the Gulf. It provides support that is tailored to the particular needs and situations of the particular country in question. Let me give you a flavour of what this support involves.

In Egypt, we helped to deploy observers to witness parliamentary elections. We supported work between the BBC and the national Egyptian Radio and Television Union to make election coverage more impartial, accurate, and focussed on reporting outside of the capital. Our support sought to help the Egyptian people realise their ambition of holding free and fair elections. It did not presuppose what the outcome should be, or favour any political constituency over another.

We have worked with the British Council and Anna Lindh foundation to deliver a project named Young Arab Voices. It has so far established over 150 debate clubs in Egypt, Tunisia and Jordan to provide their youths with the ability to articulate their views and opinions about politics and society. Such efforts seek to ensure that the next generation of voters in these countries will be able to fully take advantage of the freedoms and rights which they now been granted.

Other projects seek to provide young people with the skills that they need to get good jobs, and the finance that they need to start their own businesses. Each project is adapted to the conditions of the country in question, and targeted at the most needy. We hope that these efforts will help to create jobs, support economic growth and build accountable institutions.

Commercial opportunities

The Middle East is an incredibly important market for us. In 2011 we estimate that the value of British exports to the region topped £20 billion. To put this in the context of our trade with the so-called BRICs, this is as much as we export to China and India combined; it is three times more than we export to Russia; it is five times more than we export to Brazil. Growth and prosperity in the Middle East would directly benefit growth and prosperity in the United Kingdom.

And this government firmly believes that the economic potential of the region is huge. There are endless opportunities. In the Gulf, it is estimated that there are $2.2 trillion worth of infrastructure projects underway or in the pipeline. British firms don’t just have expertise in delivering infrastructure projects, but managing them, finding finance for them and operating through Public Private Partnerships.

We hope that British firms will be involved in the Libyan reconstruction effort. The UK is Egypt’s largest investor and hopes to stay so. We are pushing for trade to be opened up between the EU and the Southern Neighbourhood, which, as a sub-region, is moving towards closer economic integration. As reforms are undertaken, as governments become more representative and as they become accountable for their economic management and investment decisions, the corruption and mismanagement of the past should give way to release a lot of latent potential.

You don’t need business advice from me. But I will say that this government believes in the Arab Spring and is optimistic about the future that it will bring. The dreadful violence in Syria is casting a shadow over what has been achieved. And I will be the first to acknowledge that for other countries in the region the hard work has only just begun and there are plenty of challenges ahead.

However, the foundations have been laid for a new future. Tunisia, Egypt and Libya look so dramatically different to fifteen months ago. Tunisia has a new government and is in the process of drafting a new constitution based on democratic values and human rights. Egypt has held free and fair parliamentary elections and has presidential elections planned for the summer. In June, Libyans will have their first democratic elections after 40 years of Muammar Qadhafi’s dictatorship. We welcome the gradual reform processes begun by leaders in Morocco and Jordan. In Bahrain, the government established the Independent Commission of Inquiry and the National Dialogue last year, demonstrating its seriousness in addressing the concerns of all Bahrainis citizens. We expect the Bahraini Government to fulfil its commitment to implement recommendations fully. Finally, we also support the aspirations of the Palestinian people to realise their goal of an independent, viable state of Palestine. We have urged both parties to the Peace Process to show the political will and leadership needed to find negotiated solution and make this a reality.

Trade and investment will only cement this change. The UK government will provide the support that it can. Many of our European colleagues will do likewise. But most importantly, the reforms and changes underway have the support of bold neighbours in the region.

I cannot emphasise strongly enough the importance of the UAE’s role across the Gulf, the Middle East, North Africa and beyond. It was under Emirati chairmanship that the GCC came to the conclusion about the importance of coordinated intervention in Libya. The UAE was a crucial partner in enforcing the no-fly zone there. And we are working together in the Deauville Partnership to support the transition countries as they put in place the building blocks of more open inclusive societies.

I am truly delighted that our efforts to deepen our relationships in the Gulf have led to the close, honest and important friendship that our two nations now enjoy. And I am proud of the rich and prominent connections between our two countries. Over 100,000 British nationals, live, work, and study in the UAE. There are all sorts of varied and different business connections between us. British nationals have helped drive prosperity and development and have been involved in iconic projects like the Burj Khalifa and Abu Dhabi Formula One. Emiratis also have strong links to the UK, through their investment in the London Array - an exciting new project to build the world’s largest offshore wind farm, and the London Gateway Project - a huge port on the bank of the river Thames.

Dr Gargash is in London for the seventh meeting of our quarterly UK-UAE Taskforce, launched by the Prime Minister, David Cameron, and HH Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed last July. It has already proved to be a big success. Among its achievements are commercial initiatives, development cooperation, consular coordination, energy collaboration and increased transport links.

Every time we meet in this format, I gain new insights from Dr Gargash that fundamentally changed my perspectives. So having explained my government’s optimism about the prospects for the Arab Spring and Middle East, let me hand over to someone with a close experience of developments from whom I have learnt a great deal.

Updates to this page

Published 21 March 2012