Will Liz Truss' Britain pivot back to the Gulf?

UK Foreign Secretary James Cleverly is set to restore the post of Middle East minister, a position he once occupied

UK Prime Minister Liz Truss speaks in Parliament, as Foreign Secretary James Cleverly, to the right of her, looks on. AFP
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Now that Liz Truss has completed the formation of her government, one of the UK Prime Minister’s first priorities must be to improve relations with the country’s long-standing allies in the Gulf.

While Boris Johnson said he was sympathetic to the concerns of the Gulf states, the reality was that, during his three-year term as prime minister, London showed little interest in the region. Britain’s neglectful attitude was best summed up by the decision to end the long-standing practice of having a dedicated Foreign Office minister to look after the Middle East.

For decades, the British government had a minister of state at the Foreign Office with special responsibilities for maintaining good relations with key Arab states such as the UAE and Saudi Arabia. Often the holders of this office were politicians of high calibre, such as Alistair Burt, who played a key role in restoring relations with the region during David Cameron’s premiership.

The decision to abolish the post last February as part of an administrative reshuffle suggested that, as long as Mr Johnson was prime minister, his government had other priorities to consider.

His resignation has now provided his successor with an opportunity to revitalise relations.

Ms Truss has already demonstrated that she wants her administration to make a clean break with the Johnson era. Only a handful of those who served in Mr Johnson’s cabinet have been given positions in the new government. Nearly all the advisers and officials who worked at 10 Downing Street are being removed.

In a clear sign that Ms Truss wants her administration to adopt a more professional approach, her staff has been ordered to dress appropriately, with men required to wear jackets and ties.

An indication of Ms Truss' ruthless approach – as part of a determination to distance herself from the chaos that characterised the Johnson era, and resulted in his unceremonious exit – can be seen in her decision to dismiss Stephen Lovegrove, Britain’s widely respected national security adviser.

Previously responsible for running the Ministry of Defence, Mr Lovegrove has been a key figure in the radical modernisation programme involving the British Armed Forces. He is also credited with persuading Mr Johnson to provide military support to Ukraine, including the deadly NLAW anti-tank weapons that played a crucial role in thwarting Russian attempts to capture Kyiv at the start of the conflict.

Mr Lovegrove is to be replaced by Tim Barrow, a former British ambassador to Moscow who was involved in the Brexit negotiations and is understood to have formed a close partnership with Ms Truss during her stint as foreign secretary. His appointment is very much in keeping with Ms Truss’s desire to appoint trusted associates to key positions in her government.

It is a policy that has resulted in James Cleverly, who worked with her as a junior minister at the Foreign Office, becoming the country’s new Foreign Secretary. Mr Cleverly, 53, was a staunch supporter of Ms Truss’ leadership challenge in the governing Conservative party right from the beginning of a gruelling six-week campaign.

His appointment, moreover, suggests that Ms Truss is keen to rebuild relations with Britain’s Gulf allies, with Mr Cleverly well-known in the region from his period as Middle East minister from February 2020 until it was abolished last year. During this spell, he developed close ties with the leadership in each of the six GCC member states.

He also demonstrated that he wasn't afraid to make difficult decisions regarding regional security issues. He was heavily criticised after announcing significant reductions to Britain’s foreign aid contributions to Yemen, a decision Mr Cleverly said had to be made because of the financial burden placed on London by the pandemic. He also resisted calls for the UK to stop selling arms to the Saudi-led coalition fighting to restore Yemen’s democratically elected government.

In addition, he was directly involved in efforts to revive the controversial 2015 nuclear deal with Iran. He met Iranian officials in November 2021 to discuss the terms of a new deal and attempted to negotiate the release of British-Iranian nationals Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, Anoosheh Ashoori and Morad Tahbaz. Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Mr Ashoori have since been released and returned to the UK, while Tahbaz was released from prison on temporary furlough in July.

With negotiations over a new nuclear deal said to be entering a critical phase, Mr Cleverly will probably call for London to adopt a hawkish approach, an attitude that will help to reassure the Gulf states that their concerns regarding Tehran's destabilising behaviour in the region are not being ignored.

Mr Cleverly’s appointment has also raised hopes that the new government will reinstate the position of a dedicated Middle East minister. Two new ministers of state have now been appointed at the Foreign Office. Leo Docherty is a former Scots Guards officer who has good knowledge of the Gulf region. Jesse Norman is an Old Etonian who has previously worked at the Treasury.

The formation of this powerful new ministerial team certainly suggests that, under Ms Truss’s leadership, Britain will be showing a greater willingness to safeguard the interests of its Arab allies.

Published: September 08, 2022, 2:05 PM