It's time for Philip Hammond to revisit Middle East relations
A country’s foreign policy is often, and rightly, seen as its window on and to the world; a microcosm of what a country is thinking and feeling at a given time. For large economically, politically, militarily, socially and culturally influential countries like the UK is this is especially important. Now the election is over, foreign policy must once gain take up a broad position at the heart of the UK policy nexus after some months with a low profile in public debate.
Over the years, what the UK has said and done in foreign policy terms has been hugely important and agenda setting both domestically and internationally and, as with any country, influences its economic success and social fabric. As a former US Vice President said, “foreign policy is really domestic policy with its hat on.” Yet it is often seen wrongly as a niche, complex and particular issue which has little role in public debate and in recent years has increasingly, around the world, been conducted on narrow and introspective lines.
Perhaps this is why, during the long UK election campaign which has just concluded with a majority victory for the Conservative Party, the number of times substantive foreign policy and international relations issues were mentioned can be counted on one hand. When foreign policy was mentioned it was more often than not an often vociferous and partisan debate around the UK’s membership of the EU or on narrow terms around immigration or Islamic extremism. As a result, the coverage and discussion of the UK election across the region and beyond was more muted than in previous years.
To some extent, this is of course understandable as UK elections are rarely won or lost on the basis of foreign policy with domestic social policy, especially in the context this year of a still recovering economy and broad public service reforms half completed. However, it is difficult to remember a time when foreign policy played such a small role in a domestic election, particularly at a time when the world is such an uncertain place and globalization is making our foreign relations with each other ever more important.
Now that the election is over and the new administration is taking place, there is the chance to re-position foreign policy centre stage on the UK’s policy agenda, ensuring it helps drive his “one nation” economic growth and reform agenda by showing the UK is open for business. The Prime Minister, David Cameron, was right to identify in 2010 the “global race” (in terms of the UK’s competiveness and need to export and trade widely) as one of the UK’s defining challenges. This is a strong and open approach to foreign policy which is hugely encouraging and will reap benefits across the world. It is especially important to us in the Middle East where we want to continue to engage with the UK on as a wide parameter as possible.
Here in Oman, a country which has a special and unique relationship with the UK, this has been hugely beneficial with the UK now the largest foreign direct investor in the country - with over 600 million dollars’ worth of exports into Oman last year alone. With our economy growing and diversifying at an impressive rate thanks to a dynamic and forward looking leadership and Vision 2020, there are huge opportunities for a further entrenchment of Oman-UK ties in areas such as infrastructure, construction, financial services, energy, science, healthcare, defence and education. It has been exciting to see the growth of UK companies investing directly in our country in recent years and helping Omani companies and young Omanis expand their own business potential in the process - so they themselves can invest in the UK market. This is an important aspect of diversifying both of our economies.
Such an open and broad approach should continue to determine foreign policy, particularly with the Middle East. Upon re-taking office, the excellent UK Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond, to whom I offer my congratulations, outlined the three core priorities for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office; European renegotiation, Russian expansionism and nationalism and the threat of Islamic extremism.
He is, of course, right to pinpoint these as broad existential strategic challenges to the UK and the west of our times but it is very important that the last of these points, Islamic extremism, is seen through a wide prism. Islamic extremism has its roots in a number of complex factors but is best tackled by focusing on strengthening economies and societies across the region, a priority area where the UK will play a major role. It is in our mutual interests to take a long-term approach to these issues rather than boxing out Islamic extremism as a specific issue to be engaged with on narrow lines.
Moreover, Middle Eastern countries should not just been seen in foreign policy terms as partners in tackling Islamic extremism, but rather as key strategic partners who sit on the new Silk Road between the east and the west. As I have highlighted in the case of Oman, the opportunities across the Gulf and the broader Middle East are huge and varied for businesses and consumers alike. Yet beyond the socio-economic factors, these countries can play an increasing role in the major global challenges we all share; key security issues, sustainability issues in areas such as energy and water use, the environment, climate change, international development, disaster relief, standards setting, macro-economic and regulatory stability, driving innovation and using technology among others. Now is the time to seize this opportunity to continue to develop relationships with the region as a holistic and strategic partner in the broadest possible sense.
When it comes to the Middle East, the “global race” narrative should once again take centre stage as a central, comprehensive and positive foreign policy guiding light.
Mohammed Al Ardhi is chair of the National Bank of Oman and former head of the Oman Air Force.