What a Corbyn government could mean for the Middle East

Dramatic shifts are on the horizon for British policy on Israel-Palestine and Saudi Arabia, should Corbyn win power this week

Brexit is the sole and dominating reason for the general election taking place this week in the United Kingdom. Foreign policy more broadly has played little role in the campaign, but, with the distinct possibility of Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn becoming prime minister, observers should not overlook the potential impact of his positioning in the international arena – especially on the Middle East.

Labour’s election manifesto outlines a host of foreign policy promises, but this is not the only place to look for an idea of what a Corbyn-led government might mean for the Middle East. His statements over the last two years on questions ranging from the Israel-Palestine conflict to relations with Iran reveal much about his attitudes and priorities.

Corbyn has invested significant energy in the Israel-Palestine conflict over many decades, and he is a long-time member of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign. Thus, when last year he declared that “The next Labour government will recognise Palestine as a state as one step towards a genuine two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict”, this is a serious declaration of intent. Such a step would bring the UK in line with most of the rest of the world while also breaking with much of western Europe, which (with the exception of Sweden) has felt recognition to be premature. That said, other countries’ moves in this direction have done little to change the situation on the ground, other than accompanying efforts to exclude Israeli settlements from their bilateral relations. Still, the political influence of the UK doing so could still matter, and British recognition of Palestine could contribute to a wider shift towards recognition in western Europe.

In the past, Corbyn has been controversially receptive to engaging with violent non-state actors in the conflict, including Hamas. While he has said little about the group recently (perhaps because of said controversy), in 2015 he remarked that “there is not going to be a peace process unless there is talks involving Israel, Hezbollah and Hamas”. This suggests that he may still be much more open to including these kinds of actors in regional conflict resolution efforts. This does not necessarily include Israel, to which he may take a more confrontational position. For instance, in May he took to Facebook to condemn “the ongoing human rights abuses by Israeli forces”. The Labour leader’s criticism of the US embassy move to Jerusalem as a “catastrophic mistake” was in keeping with the reaction of most Western governments, including Britain’s Conservative government, but his strong language goes further than most. When combined with unilateral recognition of Palestine, this more critical approach would lead to a sharp worsening in bilateral relations, with Israel possibly downgrading its diplomatic ties with the UK, as it did with Sweden after its recognition of Palestine in 2014.

On Iran, Corbyn has been more measured in his words and positioning compared to other political leaders in Britain. Reacting to the UK government’s response to the attacks on two oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman in June (for which the UK held Iran responsible), he criticised the government for “fuel[ling] a military escalation” by having detained an Iranian tanker in Gibraltar, and stated that it was up to the UK government to “ease tensions”. And after the seizure of the British-flagged ship Stena Impero by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps soon afterwards in July, Corbyn called on all sides – not just one side – to “show restraint”, calling for a “negotiated reinstatement” of the Iran nuclear deal (the JCPOA) as the way to “defuse the threat of war”. As in the case of Israel-Palestine, Corbyn has been quick to criticise the United States, saying “Trump tearing up the nuclear deal has fuelled confrontation.” While this may suggest a further point of contention between a Corbyn government and the White House, it also reflects a view that is widely shared among European governments already.

The UK government has thus far adopted a restrained approach to Iran, seeing negotiation as paramount and sanctions and military action as undesirable. But what might change after the election is a greater willingness to retain this approach. In contrast, a Boris Johnson government returned to power may be more willing to move closer to the US “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran and even shift its support away from the nuclear deal.

Finally, Corbyn has also long been very critical of Saudi Arabia and the UK government’s current relations with the Kingdom. Commenting on then-prime minister Theresa May’s meeting with Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman at this year’s G20 summit, he called on the government to “immediately stop selling arms to his regime” after the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Enacting this policy would be firmly in the gift of a Corbyn government, especially considering this year’s court of appeal’s ruling that British arms sales to the country are unlawful, and given mounting public concern over the issue.

More broadly, Corbyn has said that in light of “war crimes … in the Yemen [sic]” and murders of political opponents, “Saudi Arabia should be held to account, not embraced as military allies”. Corbyn has consistently been critical of the Kingdom’s regional behaviour, viewing it as one of the key drivers of instability in the region. These statements point to the possibility of a complete overturning of UK-Saudi relations, with a suspension of arms sales followed by an end to military cooperation and perhaps even sanctions. ECFR visiting fellow Cinzia Bianco’s view is that: “A Corbyn government would be the worst possible scenario for Muhammad bin Salman’s Saudi Arabia, almost considered as losing the UK for five years”.

A British government led by Jeremy Corbyn would pursue a Middle East foreign policy that would be noticeably different to the current Conservative-led government, in both tone and content. Corbyn’s longstanding interest in the region alone may ensure the Middle East sits much higher up London’s agenda than it has in recent years – even while Brexit still plays itself out. The government would exhibit greater animosity towards Israel, while promoting the Palestinian cause. It could well renounce allies like Saudi Arabia, and pursue continued détente with Iran.

With an emphasis on diplomatic means only to resolve issues – in 2018 the Labour leader commented that “Bombs won’t save lives or bring about peace” following US, British, and French air strikes on Syria – seeing through foreign policy goals around the negotiating table alone would mark a new era in British diplomacy. Making a success of this as the government continues to handle Brexit; to forge a new relationship with the EU; and to deal with great powers such as the US and China, will be a challenging task should Corbyn overturn all expectations and take office this Friday.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.

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