Conservative conference is a chance to show country can 'step up on Middle East'

Leading Conservative figure Charlotte Leslie says the UK has an 'enormous challenge' to retain its influence in the region

Charlotte Leslie, head of the Conservative Middle East Council, says the UK must work harder to retain its historical position in the Middle East.
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After years of political turmoil, British leaders have a chance to show the country can “step up” its interest in the Middle East when the Conservatives gather at the annual conference this week.

Following Brexit, the UK has an enormous challenge – but also a vital opportunity – to retain its historic position in the Gulf, Charlotte Leslie, head of the Conservative Middle East Council, told The National.

Speaking ahead of a crucial Tory party conference, the director of the influential body argued that Britain needed to compete to become “the global ally of choice” for the Middle East.

The war in Ukraine and the rising influence of China alongside a perceived “nervous breakdown” in the West over upholding its values had led to the Gulf taking a more neutral stance.

“If you step into their shoes and look at the West, it's very easy to see a picture where the West is having in effect a nervous breakdown and doesn't quite know what its own self-interest is,” said the Oxford-educated director.

This had not been helped by upheavals in Britain, which has had three prime ministers in the past year, leading to a “lack of continuity”.

But the arrival of Rishi Sunak, “an internationalist”, had steadied Britain’s reputation which had taken a significant blow during Liz Truss’s quixotic administration, particularly over her decision to move the British embassy to Jerusalem.

This was rapidly rescinded by Mr Sunak who was “very adept at calming those waters”, although Ms Leslie could not contain her surprise that Britain “would even consider such a thing”.

Lost influence

The CMEC was originally set up in 1980 to help parliamentarians better understand the Middle East. But since the Iraq invasion of 2003, Britain appeared to have lost its way by following dutifully in the steps of American policy, Ms Leslie suggested.

“There's enormous respect for Britain still and the Middle East really wants us to step up to the potential that we have and that we've historically been,” said the former MP.

“We've always been seen as an as the grown-up, mature, balanced power broker that could resolve disputes.”

But there was “jumpiness” that Britain was following America and “the US is a very different beast, as we know where it stands on Israel and Palestine which still is a very, very big issue in the region”.

With the Chinese and others moving into the region, Britain’s ebbing influence was “a tremendous loss”, as it was trusted by both sides.

“I think we just need to be very conscious of our existing value and maintain and enhance that,” she argued.

That influence could reassert itself if Britain is able to strike a post-Brexit free trade agreement with the six Gulf Co-operation Council countries.

“I think there is still an element of excitement about what Britain can be and do if we do it properly,” she added, speaking at CMEC’s offices in central London.

Conservative blues

With a general election looming next year and the Tories consistently polling more than 15 percentage points behind the Labour opposition, another Conservative government is uncertain.

Could Mr Sunak turn around its fortunes at the Manchester conference?

“He's got an extraordinarily difficult task and quite a divided party,” Ms Leslie said. “I think it’s best for him not to listen to too much internal criticism from factions within the party that will probably never be satisfied.”

Her advice was for the Prime Minster to “continue to talk straight to the public”, as he “notably did” on Wednesday over reversing net-zero targets, as the people were “not yet sold on Keir Starmer”, the Labour leader.

But if Labour does come to power, the government would be in a better position under Mr Starmer than the socialist former leader Jeremy Corbyn.

“The Middle East is quite cautious about Labour but I think Keir Starmer has made significant attempts to demonstrate that he's moved on from the Corbyn era,” she said.

“I don't see quite the same level of pessimism in the region that has sometimes accompanied the concept of a Labour government.”

As for her own political future, Ms Leslie, 45, admitted that she might return to to the British Parliament and was on the Conservative candidates shortlist for a potential seat.

“If I can be useful I would like to return but I’ve already been an MP and there are a lot of very talented women who have not had the chance to be an MP,” she said.

Reappointing a full-time Middle East and North Africa minister, a post cut by Boris Johnson last year, would send “a really good signal” because when it had been dissolved that had “a negative impact on the perception of how we valued the region”.

She added that politicians such as Lord Dominic Johnson, the business minister, had “great enthusiasm and knowledge of the region” which was a “really refreshing and a very good sign”.

Brics alarm

The recent decision by the five Brics countries – Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa – to admit several new countries including the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Iran, should be a “massive alarm call to the West” as it suggested that it was “no longer reliable”.

“But it's been brewing for some time, partly due to the West's inability to compete to be a global ally of choice so this should really be a wake-up call,” she said.

While it was “complex”, the Middle East was still “enormously important” to world order not only with its natural resources “but there are very profound historic relationships, which actually really matter”, she said.

“One of the things I think often we get wrong with the region is simply seeing it in terms of commerciality and actually there’s a lot more than that,” she said.

“Art, culture and Islam that provide a hugely enriching experience.

“It is absolutely essential to understand it because there are so many tensions there and if you intervene badly you can set off a tinderbox as we saw in Iraq.”

Ms Leslie will be hosting a series of CMEC events every day of the Conservative conference, starting on Sunday, with a debate titled “Can the West and Nato stay relevant in Mena?” that will feature Mina Al-Oraibi, The National’s editor-in-chief, and former ambassador Sir John Jenkins.

Updated: September 27, 2023, 12:41 PM