Britain set to restore post of Middle East minister

Likely new foreign secretary James Cleverly is said to be pushing the move, to help UK improve relations in Gulf region

James Cleverly speaking to the media after Liz Truss was announced as the new Conservative Party leader. He is expected to be appointed as foreign secretary. PA
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Britain is expected to restore the Middle East minister post that was abolished in February under former prime minister Boris Johnson, The National can disclose.

The new leader Liz Truss will announce a new minister to cover the region in the coming days, Foreign Office sources have said. The new prime minister is in the process of appointing a new cabinet and is expected to name James Cleverly, who was the last minister for the Middle East before being appointed as Europe minister in February, as foreign secretary.

Restoring the decades-old post will be warmly welcomed after it was perceived that axing it and dividing the Middle East and North Africa region between three ministers meant that Britain’s attention was not focused on key regional issues.

A senior Foreign Office official has told The National that it would be “a day or so before an announcement would unfold”, but that it was understood that “yes, the post will be restored”.

Backing to restore the post is also understood to have come from the likely new foreign secretary.

The post's dissolution came just two weeks before Russia invaded Ukraine, which led to the current energy crisis with western powers calling on the Gulf region to increase oil production. Since then a stream of leaders, including President Joe Biden and Mr Johnson, have visited Saudi Arabia and the UAE seeking an increase in oil production.

The potential reinstatement has been widely welcomed, particularly given the region’s security issues in Iran, Iraq and Syria, as well as the UK’s desire to negotiate a free-trade agreement with the GCC.

Ms Truss “must restore” the post and create a “distinct cabinet position” for the region, said Dr Lina Khatib, Mena director at the Chatham House think tank.

“The Middle East portfolio remains hefty and complex and requires diplomatic engagement to match,” said Dr Khatib.

She added that it was a “key cause” of Gulf countries “hesitating” following western calls for increased energy production.

The new prime minister Liz Truss is expected to restore the Middle East minister post in the coming days. She got to know many regional leaders as foreign secretary, including meeting GCC members at Chevening House in December 2021.  Photo: 10 Downing Street

“Gulf Arab perceptions are that the UK and other western countries have overlooked their concerns of the threats that Iran poses to their security and political clout”, she said. “The UK can and must use existing resources earmarked for the Middle East to engage more effectively. This not only means restoring diplomatic cabinet distribution to give the region the attention it requires but also revising its approach, putting Iran’s regional interventions high on the agenda.”

Michael Stephens, the Middle East expert at the Rusi think tank, said removal of the post had been “very strange” as it gave the impression “that you're not important”.

“But Gulf states have become more important because they're energy providers at a time when everybody needs energy,” he told The National. “This is putting things back to where they need to be, especially when you think about the prospects for a free trade deal. There would be a lot to gain having a Middle East minister. It would also go a long way to solving some of the problems that have emerged and help to deliver on Britain's key national interest. It’s the right move.”

Britain may benefit from Mr Cleverly being appointed as foreign secretary because he built strong relations with Gulf leaders, earning considerable respect during his time as Middle East minister. He also retained the Iran portfolio which could help in negotiations to restore the nuclear deal.

Security expert Hamish de Breton Gordon, who has advised governments on chemical weapons in Syria, said removing the post had been a “strange signal to our friends in the Middle East” that Britain was “turning away from them”.

“Having a Middle East minister will hopefully reassure them that we are absolutely wedded to peace in the Middle East and that we want to create an influence for the good,” he said. “It’s a very positive and good move by Liz Truss and absolutely required with all the turmoil in the world.”

Updated: September 07, 2022, 7:10 AM