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BEIRUT, LEBANON — Great Britain is signaling that it wants to fill the political void in the Middle East being created by the U.S. breakdown in trust with the Gulf Arab States in an effort to offset potential Russian influence.
U.S. relations with Egypt ruptured over the administration’s lack of support for the ouster, earlier this year, of the democratically-elected Muslim Brotherhood President Mohamad Morsi by the military. The U.S. suspended $1.3 billion of its military assistance to Egypt.
Fed up with Washington’s lectures on democracy, the Egyptian military leadership took some of the $12 billion in money it received from Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf Arab states and turned to Moscow to purchase some $4 billion in military aircraft and other equipment.
The Saudis back the military because they are opposed to the Brotherhood, which is against the monarchies of the Middle East and wants to replace them with Islamic caliphates guided by Shari’ah law.
The military wants Egypt guided by a milder form of Shari’ah than the Brotherhood does, but under secular leadership.
Following the Egyptian backlash, the U.S. decided not to bomb Syria or seek regime change, and instead entered into an arrangement with Russia to eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons.
That development incensed Riyadh, which sees the alliance between the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Iran as a threat to its existence.
For these reasons, Riyadh has embarked on an independent course from the U.S. to finance and provide weapons to Sunni Islamist fighters from Central Asia, the Caucasus, North Africa and the Middle East in an effort to topple al-Assad.
These fighters have shown to be closely allied with al-Qaida, further eroding U.S. support for the Syrian opposition, and throwing U.S. policy for the region into greater disarray.
“The alarming breakdown in trust between Washington and Arab leaders has certainly not escaped Moscow’s attention, with Russia intensifying its efforts to move into countries that for decades have been stalwart American allies,” according to Middle East expert Con Coughlin.
Coughlin said that the British are very aware of what he terms the “pitfalls of this dangerous tilt” toward Moscow.
As a result, British Defense Minister William Hague has given a strong indication that Britain wants to renew its once deep ties with the Gulf Arab countries, much the way it was 40 years ago, before the British had to withdraw its forces from east of the Suez Canal as an austerity measure due to economic imperatives at home.
Now, Britain has signaled its willingness to return, as Hague pointed out in a presentation recently at a conference in Manama, Bahrain, organized by the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies.
U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel also was at that conference and attempted to reassure the Gulf States of continued U.S. interest in the region. The response by the Gulf Arab countries was less than enthusiastic, observers say, with Arab politicians questioning whether they could trust the U.S. any longer to look out for their interests.
Now, the British are floating the idea of more than $25 billion in arms deals with the Gulf Arab States and a return of British military presence east of Suez.
“Certainly, if the Obama administration is not up to the job of looking after its friends,” Coughlin said, “then Britain should do the job for it.”
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