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Britain, the Gulf and the Wider World: Lessons from the ‘First Brexit’

Guest Contributor

Gerald Power

It’s often repeated that Brexit is an unprecedented moment in UK and EU history. But there has already been a ‘Brexit’, a sudden British withdrawal from a close and synergistic relationship with foreign partners; a decision which divided domestic opinion while leaving the rest of world perplexed. The first Brexit was the British government’s decision in January 1968 to withdraw from its role as formal protector of a clutch of territories ‘East of Suez’ in the Arabian Gulf and in East Asia (the actual withdrawal took place in 1971). It was an exit the current British government admits regretting. Now, the Conservatives are courting the very states unceremoniously abandoned in 1968, and its Gulf pivot looks like becoming a major long-term pillar of its foreign policy. But has ‘Global Britain’ – the current buzzword among Brexiteers for the agile, open and prosperous post-EU UK – learned the right lesson from the jettisoning of its position in the Gulf fifty years ago? And what can Britain’s first Brexit tell us about the current one?

Britain became protector of the modern-day UAE, Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait and Oman in a series of treaties between the 1830s and World War I. Until the Second World War the Gulf’s importance to Britain centred on India: it was a conduit for Indian trade and communications, and served as a cordon sanitaire against potential rivals for power in the subcontinent. After World War II oil became increasingly important. The UK’s interest in th