Britain has abolished the top level ministerial post of minister for the Middle East and North Africa, the high profile role charged with handling relations with the region.
The National can disclose the senior position was scrapped after the latest government reshuffle saw the Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office's responsibilities divided.
The moves come at a sensitive time, as the UK negotiates a free-trade agreement with Gulf states and amid late-stage negotiations on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action on the Iran nuclear file. The decision not to have a single political figure handling all of the historic Mena relationship could have a potentially significant impact on relations, senior politicians have warned.
The Foreign Office has now divided the responsibilities between three ministers after the Mena minister James Cleverly was given the Europe portfolio, which supports the Brexit trade talks, last week.
He will retain responsibilities for Iran, while another Conservative politician Amanda Milling adds the Middle East to her Asia portfolio and Lord Ahmad takes North African responsibilities in his post.
The termination of the decades-old post, held by former ministers such as Alistair Burt and Andrew Murrison, was disclosed after The National approached the Foreign Office requesting an update on who had been appointed the new Mena minister.
It is understood that the post's axing was a “political decision” taken by Foreign Secretary Liz Truss and her advisers.
But a senior Conservative MP questioned the timing of the move. “It beggars belief that at time of heightened threat and tension the Foreign Office would operate with fewer ministers,” the politician said. “The carving up of the Mena post hardly gives confidence in 'Global Britain'.”
The departure of Mr Cleverly could prove problematic after he built strong relations with Gulf leaders, earning considerable respect.
“Is this the prioritisation that you would expect from 'Global Britain'?” a leading politician with Middle East links said. “JC [Mr Cleverly] was really across his brief and to move him away at this stage is just the kind of short-termism that holds back our foreign policy. It means that we never get the respect that we should because we constantly change ministers with international experience. Splitting Mena off into three also sends exactly the wrong message to our potential trading partners.”
Fadi Hakura, a Middle East expert formerly at the Chatham House think tank, said the change came at a time of burgeoning ties between the Gulf and UK with much greater attention given to the area post-Brexit.
“How much this restructure resonates will depend on the personality of each minister and how energetic they will be undertaking their portfolio,” he said. “The fact that it’s three more ministers might mean that the region gets more attention and focus.”
Charlotte Leslie, director of the Conservative Middle East Council, said the change was an “innovative way” of looking at the region.
“Ministers will be working hard to demonstrate to our Mena friends and partners that this new approach not only means that Mena is as important as ever to the UK, but that this new geopolitical lens will reap unexpected mutual benefits,” she said.
In response to a request to explain the decision the Foreign Office issued a short statement. “Minister Milling is responsible for the Middle East portfolio at the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office,” it said.