Speaking at a conference on the future of Palestine and Britain’s role in the region, Rory Stewart, who served as International Development secretary, offered a gloomy outlook on the consequences of the UK's policy shifts, funding cuts and waning influence in the region.
“We talk a lot about America leaving the Middle East and that's clearly a big phenomenon and one of the things that will lead to increasing instability and interstate conflict in the Middle East within the next decade," Mr Stewart told listeners online. "I fear that it will look more violent than it did at the end of the 20th century, partly because of Americans withdrawing but also the British withdrawal."
The writer and humanitarian, who had a career in foreign affairs before joining government, said Britain had “given up” on investing in the expertise and “deep-country knowledge required from our diplomats” over the last three decades.
“As an example, I remember in 2011 that the number of British ambassadors in the Middle East who spoke fluent Arabic had declined from 13 to three. And the size of our representations in many of these places have shrunk and continued to shrink,” Mr Stewart said.
During an online talk with Vincent Fean, chair of the Balfour Project charity that put on the conference, Abandoning Palestine, Mr Stewart lamented the UK’s absence in the Palestine peace process. He said this had “now been reduced further by the current foreign secretary” and criticised an overall “diminution of British presence”.
“Less investment in the BBC World Service, less investment in the British Council, a less visible presence in terms of offering scholarships," he added.
“I would like to see, for example, Britain investing strongly in cultural heritage in Palestine. I would love to see investments in Bethlehem in traditional crafts, but also in Hebron and Nablus. I think there is extraordinary heritage under threat and I think Britain has an incredible strength in protecting landscapes."
Mr Stewart, who has lived in Amman for two years while working on a development project with the Turquoise Mountain charity he co-founded, singled out Jordan as an “exception” to the UK’s waning interest in the region.
“I think Jordan is maybe quite an interesting example of a place where Britain is still demonstrating quite a wide range of cultural, military, diplomatic and political engagements; deepening the relationships between the royal families, thinking about how to do development projects, and investing in renewable energy. So there are exceptions,” he said.
“It is absolutely vital” that Britain and the European Union fill in some of the gaps left by the US withdrawal, Mr Stewart said. However, he is worried that Britain’s recent “tilt towards Asia Pacific” is reinforcing “America's obsession with a confrontation with China”, which meant “abandoning Africa, Europe and the Middle East.”
Last year, the UK dropped its pledge to devote 0.7 per cent of its GDP — £4.6 billion ($5.7bn) — to international development. The war in Ukraine has further diverted the already reduced funds from humanitarian crises in places such as Yemen and Syria.
“The cuts to the British attache department have been particularly brutal, partly because they were cut at a time when an enormous amount of money was already pre-committed to different multilateral institutions,” Mr Stewart said.
“So almost overnight, Britain, which has been steadily increasing its bilateral presence in 30 countries, found itself suddenly unable to continue programmes that everybody assumed would expand.”
The challenge for Britain now is “rebuilding the country’s international development capacity”. However, the adventurer said that domestic concerns over costs of living need serious and immediate attention.
The war in Ukraine had “punched a hole in the global trading system” and increased the “pressure” on the UK to develop technology to decrease its dependence on others, albeit at a high cost. The result would mean a more inward looking politics and economic outlook.
“We have been the beneficiaries for the last few decades of a very, very open trading system, where we relied on importing an enormous number of goods from China. And, of course, it's turned out that an enormous amount of our food and fertiliser comes from Russia and the surrounding countries," he noted. “Now we are moving into a world in which there will be much more pressure for us to develop our own independent technology, to grow more of our own food, to make ourselves energy independent. And all of that will come with an immense economic costs; it will increase prices to consumers dramatically, which will have a deep effect on the cost of living and inflation in the developed world, but will also lead to terrible poverty and suffering.”