After the United States, Britain plays the most significant role of any foreign power in the Middle East, voted the resounding majority of a mainly British crowd attending a recent Doha Debate at the Cambridge University Debating Union.
Arguing in favour of the motion ‘This House believes Britain’s role in the Middle East is in a terminal decline’ were former Israeli foreign minister Shlomo Ben-Ami and Pakistani-born member of the House of Lords Baroness Falkner of Margravine.
Arguing against were former British Foreign Secretary Sir Malcolm Rifkind and Raghida Dergham, a columnist at Al Hayat, London’s leading Arabic language daily.
An audience poll at the end of the debate had 68 per cent voting against and only 32 per cent in favour.
The Doha Debates are a series of monthly debates sponsored by the Qatar Foundation that “explore the burning issues in the Arab and Islamic worlds,” according to a press release
Presided over by well-known BBC television personality Tim Sebastian, the debates are aired on BBC World.
Shlomo Ben-Ami spoke first.
Setting his argument against the historical backdrop of Britain’s steadily declining role in the Middle East since the Second World War, Ben-Ami argued that the UK’s tarnished reputation and relative unimportance militarily in Iraq, as well as its absence in other regional conflicts — most visibly, perhaps, from UNIFIL 2 in South Lebanon — showed that while it still has some influence in the region, it “can no longer make a difference.”
Baroness Falkner, who said that the UK’s involvements in the Middle East over the years could be summed up by the phrase “kicked out, bowed out or ran out,” argued that when the UK does intervene, it only makes things worse.
The key opposing argument — and the strategic turning point of the debate — was Dergham and Sir Malcolm Rifkind’s concession that the UK often did make things worse, but that this power to foul things up only showed the country’s ongoing power.
Baroness Falkner’s response that in her interpretation “influence” had to be “for the better” did not carry the day, and the audience seemed convinced that for good or for bad, influence is influence.
The audience also seemed to accept the argument that the UK’s influence should not be weighed against the US — the country Sir Malcolm Rifkind called a “super-duper power” — but rather against the other countries, such as France, that might play a secondary role.
Ben-Ami and Baroness Falkner failed to answer the repeated challenge from Sir Malcolm and moderator Tim Sebastian to say what country, if not Britain, is second to the US in its influence over the Middle East today.
While Sir Malcolm Rifkind provided some of the most entertaining moments in the debate, some of the most revealing moments came from Ben-Ami.
He suggested that in Middle East politics “inspiration without intimidation” can’t fail.
Asked by Tim Sebastian if that was the modus operandi of Israel, Ben-Ami suggested that “they don’t give a second chance to the defeated and have no mercy on the weak.”
Later, while arguing that Britain’s economic ties with Israel were not indicative of its power over that country’s policies or, by extension, any other country with which it has economic ties, Ben-Ami was asked if he was suggesting that Britain had “zero” political influence on Israel, to which he replied, “practically zero, yes.”
Sir Malcolm Rifkind, replying to Ben-Ami’s suggestion that “the UK is a miniature version of the US,” lamented the loss of the US as a British colony.
He also recalled, as an instance of British influence over the US, going to Washington to negotiate with US deputy secretary of state, Kenneth Dam.
They were able to agree on everything except whether to call their conclusions the “Rifkind-Dam” or the “Dam-Rifkind” agreement.
Although the debate benefited from the lively participation of 15 high school and university students of 10 different nationalities who flew out, courtesy of the Qatar Foundation, in order to attend the debate, the majority of the audience were from Cambridge.
Speaking after the event, Ben-Ami suggested that the audience vote had a lot to do with where the debate was held, pointing out by analogy that the resounding defeat of the 28 March 2007 motion “This House believes the Palestinians should give up their full right of return” was not surprising given that the debate was held in Qatar.
The Doha students were divided, some believing the UK still had an important role in the Middle East and others not.
For Majid Al-Badi, a 17-year-old Qatari national and student at the Qatar Leadership Academy military school, the most powerful moment of the debate was the last question from the audience.
“As an Arab, I really felt it,” Al-Badi said, when Zeena Kanaan invoked UK “interference with the division of the Middle East countries” and the transformation of regional identity from one of pan-Arabism to British-imposed, balkanized nationalism.
“How can one claim that the role of Britain is in terminal decline when they have scarred the Middle East forever?” Kanaan asked.