Is Boris Johnson's government losing focus on the Middle East?

Three new ministers for the Mena region should be a moment to create stronger engagement, not confusion

Amanda Milling, James Cleverly and Lord Ahmad, who all have new roles relating to the Middle East. Reuters
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February has been a good month for UAE-UK relations. Just last week Prince William visited the Emirates, reaffirming the strong ties between both countries and their royal families. And at the beginning of the month, Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed, Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Co-operation, received James Cleverly, UK Minister of State for Middle East and North Africa.

As revealed by The National, Mr Cleverly will sadly no longer be representing the UK in the GCC region, after the post of Minister of State for the Middle East was scrapped. Instead, the country's Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office plans to divide responsibility for the Mena region among three new ministerial posts. Amanda Milling will now add the Middle East to her Asia portfolio and Lord Ahmad will be given responsibility for North Africa. Mr Cleverly's new role mostly involves Europe, but also includes Iran.

To many in Westminster, the move is baffling at a time when relations with the region, particularly the Gulf, are so crucial. The UK has been working hard to secure a trade agreement with the GCC, a key commercial region in the UK's post-Brexit future. Just yesterday, new data revealed that a record number of students from the UAE applied to UK universities in 2022. GCC-UK trade was worth almost $41 billion in 2020.

One senior Conservative MP told The National: “The carving up of the Mena post hardly gives confidence in 'Global Britain'.” The fact that Mr Cleverly is said by another politician to have been "really across his brief" is another cause for concern.

Away from economics, an important strategic issue that could see fragmentation because of the decision is high-stakes multilateral negotiations for a new deal to curb Iran's nuclear programme, which are entering a critical stage. Arab states have long argued that their concerns were ignored in a first, now-defunct one struck in 2015. With Mr Cleverly now no longer responsible for Arab states but still for Iran, there is a risk that one of the GCC's closest allies in talks might no longer be able to argue its case as uniformly as before.

Advocates of the division argue that it represents a modern approach for looking at Mena, and that three ministers rather than one paves the way for more specific government attention. Ms Milling's new responsibility for the Middle East in the wider context of Asia might be a recognition that the region is increasingly integrated into the continent's economy. Today's meeting between Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, which is expected to discuss deepening trade ties among other things, is evidence this might be the case. There is even talk in academic circles that the label Mena should be replaced with "Swana" (South West Asia and North Africa), considered more reflective of the modern, post-colonial identity of the region. While that interpretation is still not mainstream, it indicates that current geographical and economic delineations might be increasingly up for revision.

Ultimately, what matters more than anything else for the UK's relations with the region is simple: continued appreciation and attention from government. While this new approach might be surprising, with so much recent evidence that the UK's relations with the Middle East are becoming stronger, it does not have to be damaging.

Published: February 18, 2022, 3:00 AM