Commentary

The Middle East Reacts to Brexit

Middle East In Focus

Middle East Policy Council

Views from the Region

The United Kingdom referendum on leaving the European Union — or Brexit as it is generally known — has dominated the news cycle across the globe. In the Middle East, reaction to the victory of the Leave campaign has been measured, with many countries downplaying the potential impact of the vote on their respective relationships with the UK and the EU.  Everyone agrees, however, that Brexit is likely to increase economic and political instability across the globalized world, with the Middle East inevitably impacted in some way. Whereas some in the region have sought to emphasize continuity in their relationship with the UK and the EU, others have begun considering ways that they could benefit from the current division at the heart of Europe.

Writing for the Saudi daily Arab News, Christian Koch assesses the impact of Brexit on the Gulf Cooperation Counci (GCC) countries and their relationship with the EU and UK, noting that “the GCC states will have to deal with a UK that is now taking on a different sort of European identity. Especially on foreign policy and defense matters, it will no longer be possible to assume that the UK and other European countries are following similar approach[es]. Instead, differences will become accentuated; a reality that the GCC states need to adjust to....The vote to leave the European Union leaves the Gulf region with a more complicated European partner to deal with. Rather than moving toward more concerted efforts at cooperation and common positions, the GCC states will find a Europe characterized by increasingly diverse policies when it comes to its foreign policy with direct implications for the Middle East as a whole. A period of adjustment will be required accompanied by a new degree of uncertainty.”

The National’s editorial, on the other hand, reflects on the implications of the Brexit vote for the sizable British expatriate community in the UAE, although it is quick to point out that, aside from heightened uncertainty in global markets, as far as the UAE leadership is concerned, nothing will change: “After the UK voted to leave the European Union, the reality is now being considered by British citizens across the UAE….For the UAE itself, little has changed. Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President and Ruler of Dubai, tweeted that ‘we respect their choice and remain committed to our long and close partnership with the UK.’ Indeed, the possibility of weakening ties with the EU could mean stronger ties with allies around the world, including in the Gulf. For Emiratis, too, there is little immediate effect. But there may be longer term uncertainty. The waves of change unleashed by Brexit will not end at the English Channel....Big political moments such as Brexit are rare. They are often unexpected and their consequences are always unpredictable....The coming weeks and months will be uncertain.”

Iran’s main daily, Tehran Times, suggests in a recent editorial that Iran should see little if any change at all in its relationship with the UK and other European countries, although the rise of nationalism across Europe is seen as a likely outcome. The editorial begins by quoting a statement by Iran’s Foreign Ministry: “’The Islamic Republic of Iran, as a country ruled by democracy, respects the British public’s vote to leave the European Union, and considers it in keeping with the will of the majority of the country’s people in regulating their foreign relations. … Iran has always been willing to expand relations with European countries based on mutual respect and non-interference in each other’s national affairs, [and] Briton’s [sic] exit out of [the] European Union will bring no change in Iran’s approach toward European states.’ … According to Jalalledin Sadatian, Iran’s former charge d'affaires to England back in the 1980s, the exit will have no tangible influence on bilateral ties, particularly economic ones. ... Apart from economic uncertainties likely to emerge in the aftermath of the exit, other serious concerns also loom large, including fears for escalation of nationalist sentiments across Europe. Also, stronger independence calls from Ireland and Scotland also are likely to be heard though it is only the passage of time which proves which interpretations are right or wrong.”

The Israeli government, for its part, has published an assessment of the possible impact of Brexit for the Israeli economy, which, according to Yedioth Ahronoth, indicates a net positive outcome, especially for exports: “According to a report published Sunday by the Ministry of Finance, the financial implications of last week's British referendum calling for their withdrawal from the European Union are not necessarily negative, from an Israeli point of view.... According to the ministry, a recession in the UK, in light of the damage to its exports, is not likely to bring about a real global crisis, but it may contribute to volatility in capital markets that will accompany the ongoing process of exiting the EU. ‘The global effects will depend on the extent of the British economy's crisis and the degree of spillover to EU countries’....The ministry explained that, in this scenario, an increase in Israeli exports to Europe is likely in high-productivity goods, such as pharmaceuticals, electronic machinery and equipment, and optical equipment, which they say Israel has a relative advantage on in export and which now constitute a significant share of British exports to Europe.”

Considering the souring relationship between Europe and Turkey, it is perhaps not surprising that as Hurriyet Daily News’ Nuray Mert points out, there has been much schadenfreude among Turkey’s governing political class with the potential fallout of Brexit: “The Turks are enjoying Brexit a lot. To tell the truth, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is right to point out that British Prime Minister Cameron lost his EU bid and lost his country’s EU membership after claiming that Turkey was so far from EU membership that it wouldn’t join until the year 3000. In fact, the truth is that as the anti-EU mood rises in governing party circles, the president and his party are glad that the EU is facing dissolution itself....The governing party in Turkey has long been drifting away from its previous pro-EU stance and sliding toward anti-Western nationalism....Right after the British voted for Brexit, Erdoğan declared that Turkey may also go to referendum to decide to end negotiations with the EU and claimed that the EU was refusing to accept Turkey as a member because of its religion, Islam.”

Yusuf Kanli argues that for Turkey, the UK-EU break up is also consequential in terms of the future of Cyprus, which for Turkey continues to remain a point of contention: “When the issue is looked at from a Cypriot perspective, the future framework of Britain’s relations with [the] EU will be of great importance. The first address of Greek and Turkish Cypriots in regards to higher education has always been Britain. Now education in Britain without British subsidies will become very expensive. So will health expenses. On the other hand, Britons living on the island will all of a sudden become ‘foreigners’ and instead of comrade EU citizen status, will have to go through foreigner treatment. That as well might cost some – even after the depreciation in its value after the Brexit vote still very valuable - British currency....An EU-member Britain was unable to undertake individual approaches on the Cyprus issue. That might change as well....The capabilities of an EU-member Britain, out of solidarity with EU-member Greek Cyprus, were rather restricted. There is a totally different situation and nothing will be ‘business as usual’.”

Finally, the Khaleej Times editorial cautions against a rushed "divorce" and pleads for a cautious and deliberate approach to solving issues arising from the Brexit vote: “Article 50 of the statute clearly provides for a two-year window for the exit process from the date the provision is triggered. But the nervous and shocked EU leaders' demand that Britain should exit 'as soon as possible' is unwarranted and sounds a bit vindictive. It is entirely within Great Britain's right to decide when it will invoke the severance clause. The legally non-binding verdict of the referendum does not make it incumbent on the UK to apply for divorce immediately. So it is not a good idea and smacks of small mindedness for the EU leaders to goad the UK to begin the process right away....The country needs a deft and experienced leadership to negotiate this difficult process which will involve protracted discussions on a variety of issues. All these matters should be handled in a manner that is mutually beneficial.”


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Middle East In Focus is a synopsis of commentary and news from Middle Eastern and other international media. Its purpose is to provide a succinct summary of the main developments and views that are often overlooked or not properly reflected in the U.S. media. For the most recent collection of articles on and from the Middle East, please go to: http://mepc.org/articles-commentary/articles-hub. Comments and feedback are welcome at info@mepc.org.