British Foreign Policy and the Arab Spring

Why did the British government respond in the way it did to the Arab Spring? 
Some analyses have argued that Britain’s inconsistency demonstrates that Britain’s policies toward the Middle East in the wake of the uprisings in 2011 was hypocritical. Indeed while Britain condemned government violence in Syria, took military action in Libya it offered only muted comment on brutality in Bahrain, Egypt, Tunisia, and Yemen.

A negative consequence of this apparent inconsistency of this was that British policy-makers’ use of human rights language was interpreted to be little more than a cover for pursuit of self-interest rather than genuine concern. In a new article recently published in the academic journal Diplomacy and Statecraft, Dr. Jamie Gaskarth (an expert on British Foreign Policy at the University of Plymouth) and I, analyzed these issues.

We took the emergence of the ‘Arab Spring’ to mean specifically the protests that occurred between December 2010 and December 2011 in 18 of the 22 states that comprise the Arab League. And our investigation found that simply labeling British actions as hypocritical does not fully explain the nuances of Britain’s policy in this context. Instead we sought to dig deeper and discover what was the underlying logic for Britain’s response.

What we found was that out of a range of variables the could have impacted British Foreign Policy in the Middle East and North Africa – including economic ties, civil society pressures, elite interactions – the only really significant factor involved in the UK’s response was that of its perceived security relationships with particular, long standing, allies.

Moreover, while this investigation brought to light the fact that British Foreign Policy makers did see themselves as pursuing a range of policies that fit with a coherent rationale, our closer examination of how these policies played out suggests that such an explanation may actually be better interpreted as merely rationalization.

Underlying logic

When the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition came to office after the 2010 elections the new Foreign Secretary William Hague set out his vision of how he saw Britain’s role in the world. This, he described, was that Britain would have a “networked foreign policy” in a “networked world”. This meant, he explained, that the world effectively comprised “networks of states with fluid and dynamic patterns of allegiance, alliance, and connections.” In other words, British foreign policy would largely be focused on country-to-country links that would be flexible and adaptive to changing contexts. This explanation might go some way to explaining some apparent inconsistencies in policy. Indeed, according to this view, rather than being a product of policy errors or hypocrisy, some inconsistence would actually be a logical result of a deliberately flexible policymaking approach.

Narrowing the framework

Even from a first look at British actions in response to the Arab Spring, there are some obvious steps we can take to make the discussion more focused. For example rather than look at all the protests equally we separated the protests into six different categories. Essentially this looked at the events of the protests along two intersecting axes: the severity of the protests and the government’s response. Thus we developed a system of categorization that grouped countries together from examples where there were no significant protests – Qatar and the UAE – to those where there a “Significant Rupture in the Structure of Rule” took place. This last category obviously included: Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Syria and Yemen.

We also looked at how and why the British government responded to protests. We drew both on the UK governments’ official statements on each case study and the more serious actions including military action. These categories ranged from “Substantial Support for the Protesters” – Libya and Syria – to “Substantial Support for the Regime” – Bahrain. However, for most cases the UK offered “No Substantial Commitment to Either Side”.

We found that generally – but not always – the most important determinant was the death toll in each case study.

On the evidence of fatalities alone, it appears that the majority of situations were not serious enough to compel Britain to take a position. However, Egypt, Tunisia, and Yemen were notable exceptions where the death toll was high. In these cases, one might expect a firmer British stance.

So out of the cases where there were high death tolls Britain supported the protesters in two cases – Libya and Syria – but it did not commit to supporting either side in Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen.

Yet there was another odd-one-out. A country where there was not a particularly high death toll, but Britain inserted itself into the crises none-the-less. This was the case of Bahrain.

Against the regime

In the cases where Britain took a stance against the existing regime we found that there were few obvious commonalities. Indeed, since the rapprochement with the West – symbolized by Blair and Gadhafi’s ‘meeting in the desert – Britain enjoyed strong economic links with Libya – especially in terms of importing hydrocarbons – and controversial relations with the regime both in terms of elite links and between their respective security agencies.

While in the case of Syria there were few ties. Indeed, despite the much vaunted, but ultimately abortive, efforts to woe Bashar al-Assad in the early 2000s, the regime returned to hostile relations with the West. Preferring instead an alliance with Russia. Though Syria did export some oil to Europe, this was a small amount not seriously comparable with Libya-European trade.

Again, in terms of security ties, though Syria did become more cooperative than it had, during the ‘War on Terror’ its links to the UK, in this respect, were offset by Syrian support for Hezbollah and – until the uprising – Hamas.


For the states where Britain remained on the sidelines there was a similar range in the kind of long-term relationships. Indeed, the UK enjoyed important trade relations with Egypt as well as historical links and connections to the Mubarak family. Tunisia was a less important trade partner and there were few significant connections otherwise.

Yemen, on the other hand, had been a state of considerable interest and concern for the British government. This was focused, mostly, on the UK’s strategic interest in containing potential Iranian influence and also combating the rise of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Thus, in January 2010, the UK had hosted the Friends of Yemen group, an ad hoc network of interested states seeking to promote reform and counter terrorism in Yemen.

Old friends

Bahrain was the only state that Britain was clearly on the side of the regime (though it did cancel some arms exports). While the value of the UK’s trade relationship with Bahrain was comparatively low there were significant and long-standing links in terms of elite relations as well as security networks. Indeed, often these relationships overlapped, as a 2011 report in the Guardian noted, “the Ministry of Defence
has helped train more than 100 Bahraini military officers in the past five years at Sandhurst and other top colleges in the UK.” Moreover, security 
and intelligence links remain extensive and include a new British naval base announced late last year. These developments build on a bilateral defence co-operation accord (October 2012) and is evidence of the continued strengthening of this relationship. As we argue:

Any rupture would have major implications for Britain’s security interests in the region as Bahrain’s hosting of major defence installations allows Britain to project influence, with allies, across the Gulf.


Prima Facie what we found from this analysis is that in determining Britain’s actions following the outbreak of the ‘Arab Spring’ was that security ties trump economic and civil society links. Further, at a deeper level of analysis we found that the despite the controversial links between the UK and Gadhafi’s security forces, these were not as important as the much tighter links between the well established allies of Britain and Bahrain.

Finally, we found that if the UK’s responses to the Arab Spring were to be taken as representative of the overall ‘Networked Foreign Policy’ – outlined by William Hague in 2010 – then this policy agenda is itself apparently somewhat confused and incoherent.

Indeed, as we conclude, in reality each of the UK various interests actually “intersect and permeate each other in ways that undermine efforts to co-ordinate any one of them in the service of [the UK’s] policy goals” and that “The result is that networked foreign policy, arguably, is no policy at all.”

Middle East Monitor

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