Frankly Speaking: Does the UK still matter to the Middle East?

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Updated 03 July 2023
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Frankly Speaking: Does the UK still matter to the Middle East?

  • Despite Brexit and mistakes, former Minister for Middle East Alistair Burt says UK still has diplomatic clout, military exports and permanent seat at UN Security Council
  • Middle East is changing and West needs to understand and watch, not necessarily get involved in region’s affairs, he tells Arab News current-affairs talk show

DUBAI: Former UK MP and two-time minister of state, the Right Honorable Alistair Burt, has admitted that “policy errors have been made” by the UK government that have affected its relationship with the Arab world, but that the region “remains of great interest and importance” to the country.

Appearing on the Arab News current-affairs talk show “Frankly Speaking,” Burt, who has served as UK minister for the Middle East, said that “the essential thing is that the long historical ties and the relationship between us means there will always be an interest and an involvement.”

Burt, who has visited the region twice this year and still retains close ties with officials and leaders there, explained how his revelation comes as part of a broader recognition of the evolving dynamics in the Middle East and the need to reassess the UK’s role and engagement there.

He stressed the importance of acknowledging past mistakes as an important step toward building better diplomatic relationships in the future, saying that if the government “has made mistakes in the past, we’re very anxious to make sure they’re put right in the future.”

Burt has twice held ministerial positions in the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office: as parliamentary under-secretary of state from 2010 to 2013 and as minister of state for the Middle East and North Africa from 2017 to 2019.

He argues that the UK still has a “lot of clout in the region,” thanks to its strong trade links, common security interests and “exceptionally good ambassadors throughout the area.”

Taking note of the landmark peace deal that was brokered by China between Saudi and Iran in March, Burt emphasized that this deal could be a turning point in regional politics. Still, he cautioned that ensuring both parties would follow the agreement would be “complex,” adding that “Iran has not always been in a position to deliver on everything it might have signed up.”

That being said, Burt expressed his views on the West taking a back seat in the region’s affairs and that it should be prepared to “watch rather than be involved.” When asked if the deal comes as a “slap in the face” of the West, Burt disagreed with that as a description “because that assumes that everything revolves around us, and it doesn’t.”




Burt, who has served as UK minister for the Middle East, appearing on the Arab News current-affairs talk show Frankly Speaking. (AN Photo)

However, he did note that a more stable Saudi-Iran dynamic could lead to de-escalation in other conflicts, such as the war in Yemen. With the growing willingness to participate in diplomatic dialogue, both countries have the opportunity to de-escalate tensions and redirect their focus toward resolving the decade-long war in Yemen.

Burt has visited Yemen several times and called the crisis there “deeply, deeply distressing” and urged the potential players to create a “peace with compromise.”

He warned that the “total domination of one group over another, whether it’s Houthis or anyone else, is not a basis for long-term stability; it only produces the opportunity for more conflict going forward in the future.”

He cautioned that “the structure of Yemen will have to be looked at. The position of the south and the potential opportunities there for a different constitutional structure.”

The UK has recently appointed a new ambassador to Yemen, lawyer and diplomat Abda Sharif, who is well known and admired by Burt. He called her a “very capable and an outstanding choice of ambassador” for Yemen.

He said that she arrives at a “good time,” but admitted that while the UK’s diplomatic experience will be “looked for” in Yemen, ultimately, the UK will “not be the arbiters” in the conflict.

If the UK government has made mistakes in the past, we’re very anxious to make sure they’re put right in the future.

Alastair Burt

When it came to China’s increased role in the Middle East following its brokering of the Saudi-Iran deal, Burt said that “the region is changing, and I think the region’s influences are changing,” and “China is looking for new opportunities.”

He said he is not surprised by the findings of a recent study conducted by Arab News and YouGov, which revealed that 80 percent of Palestinians would accept a Chinese offer to mediate in its conflict with Israel, underscoring the disillusionment and distrust that exists toward traditional partners.

He added that the study’s findings indicated how “distrusted others have become.” However, he also cautioned against blindly accepting any new entrant’s motives, urging stakeholders to be wary and judge them on “what they do, not just what they say.”

His comments reflect the growing skepticism toward established mediators in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and highlight the need for fresh approaches to address the longstanding crisis.

Burt, who has long been a vocal advocate of a two-state solution, admitted that “so many in the Palestinian community” have “lost faith in the opportunity of a two-state solution” and “the degree of faith in their leadership.”

He also noted that for a long time, any criticism of Israel’s policies was met with accusations of antisemitism, which has stifled legitimate discussions on the conflict.




Burt also commented on the burning of a copy of the Qur’an outside a mosque in Sweden during the recent Eid Al-Adha holiday during his appearance on Frankly Speaking. (AN Photo)

The former UK politician said his country is “extremely concerned about the actions of the activities of the state of Israel,” and that people now realize they can “be a friend of Israel but not a friend of the government,” and that Netanyahu’s actions toward occupation and settlements should face “legitimate criticisms.”

Burt also commented on the burning of a copy of the Qur’an outside a mosque in Sweden during the recent Eid Al-Adha holiday, which has sparked outrage across the Arab and Muslim worlds.

Swedish police had initially given Salwan Momika, the perpetrator of the crime, a permit for the protest under the country’s free speech laws. Police in Stockholm are now investigating the incident for incitement of hatred. Momika has vowed to repeat his actions within days.

Burt slammed the act, saying: “It’s nothing to do with freedom of expression or freedom of speech. The burning of sacred books as a provocation is always wrong and should always be prevented. Any sensible state would do so.”

He added that the threat posed by the rise in expression of hate is “very, very dangerous and very scary” and said that no one could afford to be complacent, cautioning that it could “spark anywhere.”

Looking into other regional crises, such as Sudan, the UK has been criticized for its lack of decisive action after evacuating diplomats over citizens when fighting broke out in the North African country on April 15.

Burt defended the actions of the government, which resulted in cases such as the death of an elderly disabled British woman who starved after snipers shot her husband, despite repeated calls to the British Embassy that her family says was just meters from their home.

He said that the “sudden outbreak of violence caught a lot of people by surprise,” but that the government “worked very hard to get people out in very difficult circumstances.”

He added that he knew “Foreign Office staff who went out into danger zones in order to seek to ensure that citizens could get away.”

But he admitted that “when conflict arises, you can’t guarantee everyone’s safety … what it demonstrates is that there are almost impossible decisions to make in these circumstances … . I have been involved in hostage situations where we’ve made such a decision, and something has gone wrong, and lives have been lost. So, you can’t always get it right.”

 


Dubai carrier Emirates suspends check-in for onward connections, flydubai cancels Iran flights

Updated 19 April 2024
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Dubai carrier Emirates suspends check-in for onward connections, flydubai cancels Iran flights

  • Emirates suspends check-in for all customers in its network travelling with onward connections through Dubai

DUBAI: Dubai’s flagship airline Emirates is suspending check-in for all customers with onward connections through the city until 2359 GMT on Friday, three days after a record storm swept the United Arab Emirates.

Emirates, one of the world’s biggest international airlines, said customers traveling to Dubai as their final destination may check-in and travel as usual.

The suspension shows the airline and its hub, Dubai International Airport, are still struggling to clear a backlog of flights after the UAE saw its heaviest rains in the 75 years records have been kept, bringing much of the country to a standstill for two days and causing significant damage.

Thousands of passengers have been affected by flight cancelations this week, Dubai Airports Chief Executive Paul Griffiths told local radio station Dubai Eye on Friday, after the storm flooded taxiways.

Dubai Airports Chief Operating Officer Majed Al-Joker said on Thursday that Dubai International Airport would resume normal operations within 24 hours and signalled a return to full capacity and regular schedule, state news agency WAM reported.

The storm, which hit neighboring Oman on Sunday, pounded the UAE on Tuesday, with 20 reported dead in Oman and one in the UAE.

Dubai’s budget carrier flydubai meanwhile canceled flights to Iran on Friday after receiving an official alert, a statement said.

“In line with the issued NOTAM (notice to air missions), our flights to Iran today have been canceled,” said the statement.

One flight which had already departed for Tehran returned to Dubai after the Iranian capital’s airport was closed, it added.

Flights were suspended across swathes of Iran as Iranian state media reported explosions in the central province of Isfahan.

Flight-tracking software showed commercial flights avoiding western Iran, including Isfahan, and skirting Tehran to the north and east.

The main road that connects the UAE’s most populous emirate Dubai with Abu Dhabi remains partially closed, while an alternative route into Dubai requires vehicles to use a road that is entirely covered in floodwater where cars and buses have been abandoned.

In the UAE’s north, including in the emirate of Sharjah, people were reportedly still trapped in their homes, while others there said there had been extensive damage to businesses.

Rains are rare in the UAE and elsewhere on the Arabian Peninsula, which is typically known for its dry desert climate where summer air temperatures can soar above 50 degrees Celsius.

The UAE’s National Center of Meteorology said on social platform X that Monday may see light rainfall by late night and forecast “a chance of light to moderate rainfall, might be heavy at times over some areas” for Tuesday, with a fall in temperatures over some coastal areas.


Iran closes air space, commercial flights diverted after apparent Israeli retaliatory strikes

Updated 19 April 2024
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Iran closes air space, commercial flights diverted after apparent Israeli retaliatory strikes

  • Drones shot down over Isfahan, says Iranian state media
  • Israel military refuses to comment on incident

DUBAI/WASHINGTON: Israeli missiles have hit a site in Iran, ABC News reported late on Thursday, citing a US official, while Iranian state media reported an explosion in the center of the country, days after Iran launched a retaliatory drone strike on Israel.

Commercial flights began diverting their routes early Friday morning over western Iran without explanation as one semiofficial news agency in the Islamic Republic claimed there had been “explosions” heard over the city of Isfahan.

Some Emirates and Flydubai flights that were flying over Iran early on Friday made sudden sharp turns away from the airspace, according to flight paths shown on tracking website Flightradar24.

“Flights over Isfahan, Shiraz and Tehran cities have been suspended,” state media reported.

Iranian officials said its air defenses did shot down several drones but there had been “no missile attack for now” on the country.

The state-run IRNA news agency reported that Iran fired air defense batteries early Friday morning across several provinces after reports of explosions near the city of Isfahan.

Several drones “have been successfully shot down by the country’s air defense, there are no reports of a missile attack for now,” Iran’s space agency spokesman Hossein Dalirian says on X.

The Fars news agency said “three explosions” were heard near the Shekari army airbase near Isfahan.

Iran’s local media also reported that nuclear facilities in Isfahan were “completely secure” after explosions were heard near the area.

“Nuclear facilities in Isfahan province are completely secure,” Tasnim news agency reports, quoting “reliable sources.”

Israel had said it would retaliate against Iran’s weekend attack, which involved hundreds of drones and missiles in retaliation for a suspected Israeli strike on its embassy compound in Syria. Most of the Iranian drones and missiles were downed before reaching Israeli territory.

Several Iranian nuclear sites are located in Isfahan province, including Natanz, centerpiece of Iran’s uranium enrichment program. Isfahan, Isome 350 kilometers (215 miles) south of Iran’s capital, Tehran, is also home to a major air base for the Iranian military.

Meanwhile in Iraq where a number of Iranian-backed militias are based, residents in Baghdad reported hearing sounds of explosions, but the source of the noise was not immediately clear.

In Syria, a local activist group said strikes hit an army position in the south of the country Friday. 

“There were strikes on a Syrian army radar position,” said Rayan Maarouf, who runs the Suwayda24 anti-government website that covers news from Sweida province in the south.

Iranian military positions in Syria had been frequently targetted by Israeli air strikes over the past years. Early this month, an Israeli strike demolished a consular building annex of the Iranian Embassy in Sydia's capital Damascus, killing 13 people, including two generals of Iran's Revolutionary Guards, triggering the Iranian missiles and drones attack on Israel on April 13.

At the United Nations Security Council on Thursday, Iran urged member nations that Israel “must be compelled to stop any further military adventurism against our interests” as the UN secretary-general warned that the Middle East was in a “moment of maximum peril.”

Israel had said it was going to retaliate against Iran’s April 13 missile and drone attack.

Analysts and observers have been raising concerns about the risks of the Israel-Gaza war spreading into the rest of the region.

Oil prices and jumped on the reports of the Israeli strike. Brent crude futures rose 2 percent to $88.86 a barrel, the dollar gained broadly, gold rose 1 percent and S&P 500 futures dropped 1 percent.

Israel’s assault on Gaza began after Palestinian Islamist group Hamas attacked Israel on Oct. 7, killing 1,200, according to Israeli tallies.

Israel’s military offensive has killed over 33,000 Palestinians in Gaza, according to the local health ministry.
Iran-backed groups have declared support for Palestinians, launching attacks from Lebanon, Yemen and Iraq.


United States had advance warning of Israel attack on Iran: US media

Updated 19 April 2024
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United States had advance warning of Israel attack on Iran: US media

  • US media: Israel had provided Washington with pre-notification of the strike
  • Tehran’s two major airports resumed flights following a brief suspension

DUBAI/WASHINGTON/TEHRAN: The United States received advance notice of Israel’s reported strike on Iran but did not endorse the operation or play any part in its execution, US media quoted officials as saying.

NBC and CNN, citing sources familiar with the matter and a US official, respectively, said Israel had provided Washington with pre-notification of the strike.

Various networks cited officials confirming a strike had taken place inside Iran, with CNN quoting one official as stating the target was not a nuclear facility.

Israel told the United States on Thursday it would be retaliating against Iran in the coming days, a senior US official told CNN.

“We didn’t endorse the response,” the official said, according to CNN.

There was no immediate comment from the White House about the Israeli strike.

In response to a query from AFP, the Pentagon duty desk said: “We do not have anything to offer at this time.”

Iran activated its air defense system over several cities, state media reported, after the country’s official broadcaster said explosions were heard near the central city of Isfahan.

Israel warned it would hit back after Iran fired hundreds of missiles and drones at its arch-foe over the weekend. Most of them were intercepted.

That weekend barrage came in the wake of an attack on Iran’s consulate in Damascus widely blamed on Israel.

Tehran’s two major airports resumed flights on Friday, state media reported, following a brief suspension after explosions were heard in central Iran.

“Flights through Imam Khomeini and Mehrabad airports have resumed,” the official IRNA news agency reported.

Commercial flights began diverting their routes early Friday morning over western Iran without explanation as one semiofficial news agency in the Islamic Republic claimed there had been “explosions” heard over the city of Isfahan.

Some Emirates and Flydubai flights that were flying over Iran early on Friday made sudden sharp turns away from the airspace, according to flight paths shown on tracking website Flightradar24.

“Flights over Isfahan, Shiraz and Tehran cities have been suspended,” state media reported.

Iranian officials said its air defenses did shot down several drones but there had been “no missile attack for now” on the country.

The state-run IRNA news agency reported that Iran fired air defense batteries early Friday morning across several provinces after reports of explosions near the city of Isfahan.

Several drones “have been successfully shot down by the country’s air defense, there are no reports of a missile attack for now,” Iran’s space agency spokesman Hossein Dalirian says on X.

The Fars news agency said “three explosions” were heard near the Shekari army airbase near Isfahan.

Iran’s local media also reported that nuclear facilities in Isfahan were “completely secure” after explosions were heard near the area.

“Nuclear facilities in Isfahan province are completely secure,” Tasnim news agency reports, quoting “reliable sources.”

Israel had said it would retaliate against Iran’s weekend attack, which involved hundreds of drones and missiles in retaliation for a suspected Israeli strike on its embassy compound in Syria. Most of the Iranian drones and missiles were downed before reaching Israeli territory.

Several Iranian nuclear sites are located in Isfahan province, including Natanz, centerpiece of Iran’s uranium enrichment program. Isfahan, Isome 350 kilometers (215 miles) south of Iran’s capital, Tehran, is also home to a major air base for the Iranian military.


Meanwhile in Iraq where a number of Iranian-backed militias are based, residents in Baghdad reported hearing sounds of explosions, but the source of the noise was not immediately clear.

In Syria, a local activist group said strikes hit an army position in the south of the country Friday. 

“There were strikes on a Syrian army radar position,” said Rayan Maarouf, who runs the Suwayda24 anti-government website that covers news from Sweida province in the south.

Iranian military positions in Syria had been frequently targetted by Israeli air strikes over the past years. Early this month, an Israeli strike demolished a consular building annex of the Iranian Embassy in Sydia's capital Damascus, killing 13 people, including two generals of Iran's Revolutionary Guards, triggering the Iranian missiles and drones attack on Israel on April 13.

At the United Nations Security Council on Thursday, Iran urged member nations that Israel “must be compelled to stop any further military adventurism against our interests” as the UN secretary-general warned that the Middle East was in a “moment of maximum peril.”

 

Israel had said it was going to retaliate against Iran’s April 13 missile and drone attack.

Analysts and observers have been raising concerns about the risks of the Israel-Gaza war spreading into the rest of the region.

Oil prices and jumped on the reports of the Israeli strike. Brent crude futures rose 2 percent to $88.86 a barrel, the dollar gained broadly, gold rose 1 percent and S&P 500 futures dropped 1 percent.

Israel’s assault on Gaza began after Palestinian Islamist group Hamas attacked Israel on Oct. 7, killing 1,200, according to Israeli tallies.

Israel’s military offensive has killed over 33,000 Palestinians in Gaza, according to the local health ministry.

Iran-backed groups have declared support for Palestinians, launching attacks from Lebanon, Yemen and Iraq.


Hamas slams US veto of Palestinian UN membership bid

Updated 19 April 2024
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Hamas slams US veto of Palestinian UN membership bid

PALESTINIAN TERRITORIES: Palestinian militant group Hamas condemned on Friday the US veto that ended a long-shot Palestinian bid for full United Nations membership.
“Hamas condemns the American veto at the Security Council of the draft resolution granting Palestine full membership in the United Nations,” the Gaza Strip rulers said in a statement, which comes amid growing international concern over the toll inflicted by the war in the besieged Palestinian territory.
The veto by Israel’s main ally and military backer had been expected ahead of the vote, which took place more than six months into Israel’s offensive in Gaza, in retaliation for the deadly October 7 attack by Hamas militants.
Twelve countries voted in favor of the draft resolution, which was introduced by Algeria and “recommends to the General Assembly that the State of Palestine be admitted to membership of the United Nations.” Britain and Switzerland abstained.


Gazans search for remains after deadly Rafah strike

Updated 19 April 2024
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Gazans search for remains after deadly Rafah strike

  • ‘We retrieved the remains of children and women, finding arms and feet. They were all torn to pieces’

An Israeli strike hit the home where a displaced Palestinian family was sheltering in the southern city of Rafah, relatives and neighbors said as they scraped at the soil with their hands.

Al-Arja said the blast killed at least 10 people.

“We retrieved the remains of children and women, finding arms and feet. They were all torn to pieces.

“This is horrifying. It’s not normal,” he said, hauling concrete and broken olive branches from the wreckage. “The entire world is complicit.”

Soon after the war began on Oct. 7, Israel told Palestinians living in the north of Gaza to move to “safe zones” in the territory’s south, like Rafah.

But Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has since vowed to invade the city, where around 1.5 million people live in shelters, more than half the territory’s population.

“How is Rafah a safe place?” said Zeyad Ayyad, a relative of the victims. He sighed as he cradled a fragment of the remains.

“I heard the bombing last night and then went back to sleep. I did not think it hit my aunt’s house.”

The search for remains was long and painful. The strike left a huge crater and children picked through the rubble while neighbors removed debris, tarpaulin, a pink top.

“We can see them under the rubble and we’re unable to retrieve them,” Al-Arja said. 

“These are people who came from the north because it was said the south is safe.”

“They struck without any warning,” he said.

In a separate strike on the house in Rafah’s Al-Salam neighborhood overnight on Tuesday, rescue crews recovered the corpses of eight family members, including five children and two women, Gaza’s civil defense service said.

“An Israeli rocket hit a house of displaced people,” said resident Sami Nyrab. 

“My sister’s son-in-law, her daughter, and her children were having dinner when an Israeli missile demolished their house over their heads.”