Alex Rowell

Where does Britain’s new prime minister stand on the Middle East?

Former Home Secretary Theresa May arrives at Downing Street Wednesday as a mostly unknown quantity on foreign policy

British Home Secretary Theresa May walking to attend a cabinet meeting at 10 Downing Street in central London on June 27, 2016

It may be many decades now since Britain was the vast empire on which the sun never set (and, as someone would later add, the blood never dried), but Her Majesty’s chastened government today still retains something of an outsize influence on global affairs, thanks to its permanent seat on the UN Security Council, its economy (the world’s fifth-largest, at least until Brexit hammered the pound), its army and its ‘special relationship’ with the superpower that succeeded it on the other side of the Atlantic.


As such, the change of residents at 10 Downing Street today has at least the potential to make some difference to lives around the world; perhaps nowhere more so than in the Middle East, where Britain does billions of dollars in business – and has waged at least three distinct military campaigns in the past decade (including one, against ISIS in Iraq and Syria, that remains underway). As David Cameron’s former Home Secretary Theresa May replaces him as prime minister and head of the Conservative party, NOW poses the question of what her Middle East foreign policy views or vision may be.


The short answer is she doesn’t really have any. Throughout her 19-year political career, her focus has been more or less exclusively domestic – fitting, perhaps, for the longest-serving home secretary (Britain’s equivalent of an interior minister) in over half a century. Often described as non-ideological, her few public pronouncements on international affairs have not articulated any cohesive or undergirding philosophy. In the reams of profiles hastily put together by the British press since her promotion was guaranteed Monday, practically nothing has been said about her foreign policy orientation.


“She shows no special signs of interest in the [Middle East] region,” said Kyle Orton, Research Fellow at the London-based Henry Jackson Society (and occasional NOW contributor).


Which is not to say she’s been absent altogether from foreign policy decision-making. In fact, as an MP May voted consistently in favor of every military endeavor proposed since 2003, including that year’s invasion of Iraq; the 2011 Libya intervention; strikes in 2013 against the Syrian regime for its use of chemical weapons (which failed to win overall parliamentary approval); and the 2014 and 2015 air campaigns against ISIS in Iraq and Syria, respectively. To what extent these votes were based on robust interventionist convictions, as opposed to simple loyalty to the party line, however, is unclear.


“I think […] it's not a particular commitment” to military intervention, Orton told NOW. “She just didn't feel strongly enough either way to defy the whips.”


Still, in a speech at last year’s Conservative party conference, May may have given a rare glimpse into her personal thinking on Syria. Calling it “a civil war that exceeds even the other conflicts of the Middle East in its barbarism, brutality and bloodshed,” she said, “Bashar al Assad’s forces are committing war crimes on an industrial scale, deliberately targeting civilians and poisoning their own citizens with chemical weapons,” while ISIS “is engaged in a program of ethnic cleansing, mass murder of enemy soldiers, systematized rape and sexual violence, kidnappings and murder.”


“The other players in this appalling civil war,” she continued, “include Hezbollah, Al Nusra Front – a jihadist group affiliated to Al Qaeda – and several other jihadist militias [who] in turn are often backed by powerful foreign sponsors,” naming Iran and Russia, “whose warplanes are engaged in airstrikes against civilians and anti-government fighters,” as the prime backers of the Assad regime.


True to official policy, though, May no longer advocated military action against Assad, saying, “it is too simplistic to say that there is a single intervention which will bring a sudden end to the fighting.” Instead, “the states that sponsor the different armies and militias” should be brought “around the negotiating table,” with airstrikes reserved exclusively for the “terrorists” of ISIS.


“Terrorism,” indeed, may be the one foreign policy front on which May can claim some bona fide expertise. The few physical encounters she’s had with the Middle East have been largely concerned with militant jihadism – much like her tenure as home secretary, during which she nominally headed MI5, among other security agencies. In 2012, she flew to Jordan to negotiate the deportation from Britain of high-profile Jordanian Salafist Abu Qatada al-Filastini. And in 2015, she visited Tunisia days after a jihadist attack on a tourist resort in Sousse killed 30 Britons.


Elsewhere, the instincts of the candidate dubbed the “safe pair of hands” are likely to see her maintain ties with Britain’s existing allies in the Gulf and Israel. In 2014 she signed a confidential, still-opaque security cooperation agreement with Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Muhammad bin Nayef during an unannounced visit to the Kingdom. She also visited Qatar the same year, where she reportedly discussed trade and security with officials including Sheikh Abdallah bin Khalifa al-Thani. Israeli newspapers from Haaretz to the Jerusalem Post have already hailed her as a “friend of Israel,” pointing to her 2014 visit to the country after which she pledged to “always defend Israel’s right to defend itself” (while also – again, following the Foreign Office script – adding, “there will be no lasting peace or justice in the region until the Palestinian people are able to enjoy full civil rights”).


All in all, foreign policy doesn’t look to be an area where Prime Minister May will make her mark. Still, foreign leaders should perhaps think twice before testing her. While Conservative party veteran Kenneth Clarke disparaged her last week as someone who “doesn’t know much about foreign affairs,” he also described her as “a bloody difficult woman” to deal with.


To which an unruffled May responded: “The next person to find that out will be [European Commission President] Jean-Claude Juncker.”

May’s 19-year political career has been more or less entirely domestically focused (LEON NEAL/AFP)

The few physical encounters she’s had with the Middle East have been largely concerned with militant jihadism – much like her tenure as home secretary, during which she nominally headed MI5, among other security agencies.

  • razbliuto81

    "The short answer is she doesn’t really have any." should've been enough. Why waste a whole article on this.

    July 20, 2016

  • Hanibaal-Atheos

    And where does she stand, pray tell, on the bigots who you accused recently of wanting the Syrian refugees to return home, instead of settling permanently in their host countries like Lebanon? British tradition is rife with hypocrites. Remember former UK ambassador to Beirut, Ms. France Guy, who suggested it was about time the Palestinian refugees be granted Lebanese citizenship and give Israel a break on that delusional "Right of Return". British history is laced indeed with a lot of blood, but more importantly treacherous politics remains its hallmark: Wherever the Empire was, it left behind divided lands (India-Pakistan, Israel-Palestine...). And yet, no one reminds the English of these sad ghosts of their past.

    July 13, 2016