Middle East Politics 
Sir Geoffrey Adams: The British Response To The Arab Spring

The Political Director-General at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Sir Geoffrey Adams, shared his insights on the Arab Uprisings in a talk to the Oxford International Relations Society on November 6th


Sir Douglas Adams at Oxford International Relations Society. Photo by George O'Shea.

Sir Geoffrey Adams at Oxford’s International Relations Society. Photo by George O’Shea

Adams opened his talk with the assertion that the term “Arab Spring” was a misnomer. He posited that the protests were not solely Arab, including the 2009 protests that had occurred in Iran after the contested re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. A better term, he argued, would be “Arab Uprisings.”

British diplomatic policy thus far has been to respond to the uprisings consistently, he said, even when the urge is to treat countries differently based on their relationships to the United Kingdom. It can be particularly difficult when the nation (for example, Bahrain) has close ties to Britain, but Adams believes that maintaining political and economic interests must not come at the cost of supporting values such as democracy.

We support the leadership of Bahrain. They’re our friends. We stand by them, but if they allow their police to shoot unarmed protesters, we have to say that,” said Adams. “We can say it in a respectful way, but not to do so would not be keeping with our values.”

For Adams, the British government’s willingness to criticise friendly regimes highlights its commitment to political rights.

If it’s really true, as some people say, that the British government is motivated purely by economic interests, that all we really care about is the oil and grabbing the money, then we would have done better to say no, no, no, the protesters in Tahrir Square should go back to their homes, and their political leadership can deal with this in their own way,” he said.

He stressed the importance of Britain being modest in regards to its response. “We must remember the limits of our own influence and not get seduced by our own rhetoric. It’s not about us, it’s about them,” he said.

But modesty was not the same as inaction, he said in an interview with the Globalist. Adams believes it is possible for Britain to become involved in conflict like NATO action in Libya while still respecting a people’s autonomy.

Our action in Libya reflected our modesty. What NATO did in Libya was very specific, targeted strikes to protect the Libyan people from Colonel Ghaddafi, and allowed the Libyan people themselves to liberate themselves,” he argued.

Adams rejected that a similar approach could be taken with Syria. For one, he pointed out, the UN Security Council had passed a series of resolutions which provided the legal basis for NATO action in Libya. No such measure of international agreement exists for Syria.

Instead, the British government has imposed sanctions on Syria, and supplied medical and communications equipment to opposition groups. Britain also ranks as the largest European humanitarian aid supporter of Syrian refugees.

According to Adams, British policymakers had long expected Arabs to revolt against their oppressive governments. “There were fundamental weaknesses in the societies of those countries, and the governments were unsustainable,” he explained. It was only a matter of time before the people rise against the lack of opportunities, and, as he put it, the “pervasive sense of corruption and disease” present in their countries.

For years, Western governments had tolerated the despotic regimes because they believed there was only a choice between stability and democracy. Even in the face of the Arab uprisings, many believed that Britain should continue supporting leaders such as ousted Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

It’s not inconceivable that we could have argued, ‘better the devil that you know. He may not be perfect, but at least he’s bringing stability,’” said Adams.

But, he added, quoting former US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, this was a false choice, for the nations would end up with neither stability nor democracy.

Adams cautioned that events in the Middle East would likely get worse before they got better.

We don’t know if the leaders that are emerging will be good. We hope they are, but there will be lots of uncertainty. But I do think,  in the foreign office, it’s a great mistake to think of these challenges as security challenges. I think that risks getting back into the “war against terror, 9/11, Islam is a threat to the West” narrative, which I don’t believe is credible or helpful in reducing that threat,” he said.

As the talk was given on the evening of the US Presidential elections, Adams also touched on the implications of a Romney presidency. He believed that Romney seemed to have a moderate, cautious approach toward Iran, even agreeing with the President at times during the foreign policy debates. Yet it is impossible to know what Romney’s approach would have been, as Adams explained, for there are two competing views on foreign policy within the Republican establishment.

There’s a kind of Bush Sr., pragmatic, cautious, moderate brand of Republicanism, as it’s called, which looks at things very much from a military intelligence perspective – is this doable, is this wise to attack Iran? Would this achieve the results we want?” he said. “[Then] there would be a neo-con, Cheney-esque, Rumsfeldian view, which is there is only one thing these guys understand.”

However, looking to the future, Adams noted that President Obama’s re-election does not guarantee that American policy towards Iran will continue to be moderate.

The Israelis next year will not be silent. If they think that Iran is reaching, or has reached a point of development in its nuclear programme that represents a threat to Israel, it is very hard for any American president to resist that, and that is why I’m just worried, generally,” said Adams. 

Recent Oxonian Globalist Articles on Middle Eastern Politics:

The Middle East’s New Power Brokers

When Arabs Spring, Israel Gets Nervous

The Arab Shift