What Liz Truss’ leadership could mean for UK foreign policy in the Middle East What Liz Truss leadership could mean for UK foreign policy in the Middle East

Liz Truss was nominated as the United Kingdom’s Prime Minister on 5 September, replacing her predecessor Boris Johnson, the man who oversaw Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union (EU). While the previous leadership guided a UK which transformed its foreign policy, Truss looks set to expand Britain’s assertive foreign policy in the world, with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and Sharq region likely to be a focal point.

Prior to Truss’ appointment, Britain found itself adapting to an increasingly multipolar world, particularly given Western tensions with Russia over the Ukraine crisis and China’s expansionist foreign policy. Following Britain’s official withdrawal from the EU on January 31, 2020, London has sought to find its place in the world and has targeted regions in which it enjoyed historic influence – namely through the British Empire. Given Britain’s subsequent push to expand its geopolitical clout in such key regions, some critics of Johnson’s government have even argued that such moves reflect London’s neo-imperial ambitions which have arisen since Brexit. 

The new premier has been very outspoken on various global affairs and has been a leading critic of Russia amid Britain’s distinct position to sanction Moscow and provide aid to Ukraine. Truss has deployed tough words on China, even compared to her predecessors.

Deepening ties with the Gulf What Liz Truss leadership could mean for UK foreign policy in the Middle East 2

After becoming appointed as the International Trade Secretary under Johnson’s government in July 2019, Truss already gave an indication of her priorities for the Middle East. In September 2019, Truss apologized for “accidentally” selling weapons to Saudi Arabia, in breach of a British court ruling just three months earlier that ruled arms sales to Riyadh as “unlawful” in light of potential war violations in Yemen.

Given that the UK has remained a key arms supplier of Saudi Arabia and the Riyadh-led coalition in Yemen’s war and even resolved to continue its weapons sales to Riyadh despite Joe Biden’s suspension of most military support to the Saudi kingdom in February 2021, Truss will likely aim to continue this policy.

Given her assertive and outspoken position on various international affairs, Truss has been likened to Margaret Thatcher – Britain’s Prime Minister from 1979 to 1990. It is important to note that under Thatcher, Britain increased its arms sales and commercial links to Saudi Arabia, as London aimed to expand its clout in the region and beyond.

Britain had already established a firm presence in the GCC region following Brexit, as bilateral trade between London and the GCC countries increased substantially. In 2010, trade volume between the countries was worth $19.1 billion. By 2019, just three years after the Brexit referendum, UK and GCC trade was worth $61 billion. Naturally, London sought to strengthen economic ties with its traditional allies in anticipation of the loss of EU trade.

As Foreign Secretary, Liz Truss convened with her GCC counterparts in London in December 2021 to push for a free trade agreement (FTA) with the GCC. In June 2022, London announced it was close to securing an FTA with the bloc. Truss’ stance indicates she would likely push for Britain to finalize an FTA and boost trade ties with the GCC. Such a move would also aim to advance London’s clout in the Gulf compared with the EU, given that the bloc has yet to establish an FTA despite past talks of such an agreement.

Moreover, London has expanded its military influence in the Gulf, having built new naval bases in Bahrain and Oman in 2018 and 2019, respectively. In November 2021, London announced plans to move a key military training base from Canada to Oman, per its strategic reforms to modernize and extend its military clout and outreach.

The Gulf is evidently an important place for the UK to project power on the world stage, not just in the Middle East, but also further afield like in Ukraine, showing Britain’s ties to the Gulf will become more relevant as tensions continue with Russia.

And as China and Russia are gradually expanding their ties with GCC states, which are moving away from their dependency on Western states – particularly the United States, Truss’ policies may further aid Britain in strengthening its foothold in the region.

Wider region What Liz Truss leadership could mean for UK foreign policy in the Middle East 3

Since Brexit, the UK has also shown greater support for Israel, having increased bilateral trade volume while attempting to crack down on the pro-Palestinian Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. Truss has firmly voiced that prioritising relations with Israel and combatting attacks on Israel within international bodies would be important to her. Crucially, Truss has said she may recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and move the British Embassy there in the future.

Truss has also said that she will do everything in her power to stop Iran from building a nuclear weapon, indicating that she will take a harsher stance on Tehran than her predecessors. This could further steer the UK into siding with Israel and GCC countries which oppose Iran’s influence in the region. This is despite her diplomatic role as Foreign Secretary which helped secure the release of British-Iranian academic Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who was until recently detained in Iran from September 2016.

Truss’ stance towards Israel and Iran indicates she will steer London towards the US’ position on regional affairs. Indeed, Truss has expressed her intentions to tighten relations with the Biden administration  and plans to meet Biden in New York later in September. The two leaders have already discussed key political issues and Britain may end up further following Washington, particularly should its geopolitical ambitions in the Middle East not live up to expectations.

Furthermore, there have been discussions that Israel, Gulf countries including Saudi Arabia and the UAE, and the United States, would agree on a defence pact which would tighten military cooperation between them to counter Iran’s influence in the region. Under Truss, the UK may find itself supporting such an initiative.

Under Truss, London may develop a more interventionist policy in the Middle East, which sides even further with the US and its traditional regional allies in the near future. Ultimately, the course of Britain’s foreign policy in the region does depend on the longevity of the Conservative Party. Even so, these commercial and military ties will strengthen as long as the party remains in power, and even a change in party may pursue continuity in these relations – given the impact of Brexit and the Conservative Party’s legacy.