How would Tory leadership candidates approach the Middle East?

Two military veterans and a current foreign secretary in race to lead Britain

Boris Johnson's successor will take over negotiations with Gulf countries on trade. SPA
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While tax cuts and personal barbs have dominated the early stages of the race to be Britain’s next prime minister, a weighty foreign policy brief awaits the winner, including the formulation of UK policy towards the Middle East.

There are nuclear talks with Iran to be concluded, conflicts and humanitarian crises in Syria and Yemen to be managed, and, a favourite theme of Brexiteers, trade deals to be made with Britain’s international partners.

The second round of voting on Thursday coincided with an appeal by former Labour prime minister Tony Blair for western countries, including, Britain to embrace the desire for modernisation many people in the Middle East hold.

And negotiations began last month on a trade deal between the UK and the six-member Gulf Co-operation Council, which consists of the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Bahrain, Kuwait and Qatar.

The five remaining options are not easily pinned down by ideological faction and agree on many issues — all of those who were MPs in 2015 supported air strikes on Syria, and all want to keep deporting people to Rwanda.

Tom Tugendhat, Foreign Affairs Committee chairman

Arabic-speaking former soldier Mr Tugendhat is the closest thing to a Middle East specialist in the race, having studied in Yemen and worked as a journalist in Lebanon before joining the army during the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

As a backbench MP, he has been Parliament’s top foreign affairs inquisitor since 2020 and used that role to needle Boris Johnson’s government over the withdrawal from Afghanistan.

A critic of Iran, he launched an inquiry into the government’s handling of the Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe case and condemned her treatment by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps: “This isn’t a military, it’s a mafia.”

Mr Tugendhat wrote an article in defence of interventionism in 2016 and two years later bemoaned the fallout from the war in Syria as the “cost of doing nothing”.

He has spoken frequently about the dangers of Islamist extremism, which he described in 2020 as “a twisted form of Islam … we should call it what it is and not insult others by pretending this is Islam”.

When the Abraham Accords between the UAE, Bahrain and Israel were announced on the 19th anniversary of 9/11, Mr Tugendhat hailed them as the best possible “rejection of the hatred these terrorists spread”.

A founder of the Armed Forces Muslim Association, he likewise celebrated the Pope’s visit to the UAE in 2019 as a historic sign of cultures working together.

Tom Tugendhat has used his foreign affairs committee role to grill ministers including Liz Truss. AFP

Liz Truss, foreign secretary

Ms Truss’s 10-month stint as foreign secretary has put her on the spot on a series of Middle East-related issues from the Iran nuclear talks to the conflict in Yemen and Britain’s economic ties to the region.

After Russia invaded Ukraine, she said the resulting energy crisis meant the UK should seek alternative supplies from the oil and gas-exporting Gulf. Before that, she hosted GCC foreign ministers at a ministerial country retreat and called for closer ties in trade, investment, clean energy and cyber security.

“I would describe the Gulf states as partners of the United Kingdom,” she told Mr Tugendhat’s committee during one parliamentary grilling last month.

In March, she announced that Britain had settled a 40-year-old debt with Iran that secured the release of Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe.

She told MPs that Britain was not naive about the Iranian regime and had “very large concerns” about the prospect of Tehran acquiring a nuclear weapon, but would “work to encourage a more positive trajectory” in the country.

Negotiators from her department reached a draft deal to restore the Iran nuclear pact with world powers, but the talks broke off before a final agreement was reached and have yet to formally resume.

Foreign Secretary Liz Truss met representatives from GCC countries last year. Photo: Downing Street

Rishi Sunak, former chancellor

Mr Sunak’s background is in domestic politics and he is less of a known quantity in foreign affairs than some of his rivals. The best example he could give of a contribution to security policy was a paper he wrote in 2017 about protecting the world's undersea cables.

But one of his backbench supporters, self-proclaimed friend of the UAE Liam Fox, told The Spectator he was supporting Mr Sunak in part because of a shared belief in free trade and opposition to protectionism.

To that end, Mr Sunak used his tenure as chancellor to the idea of low-tax, low-regulation freeports to bring investment to post-Brexit Britain — an idea that has attracted interest from the Gulf.

A group of companies including the UAE’s DP World won a bid last year to establish a Thames freeport on the north bank of the estuary. Ms Truss also favours the concept.

Mr Sunak’s foreign policy stance is “difficult to interpret” but “his conservative approach to Treasury expenditure and his choices in geoeconomic forums would suggest an emphasis on ‘value-for-money’ in the UK’s international investments,” said a briefing by the British Foreign Policy Group.

As chancellor he dismayed many MPs by overseeing a cut in Britain’s overseas aid budget from 0.7 to 0.5 per cent of GDP, with some critics highlighting the potential humanitarian effects in Yemen and Syria.

He described the cut as a temporary necessity after the financial blow of the pandemic and said he was proud of “food parcels stamped with a Union Jack arriving in famine-stricken countries such as Syria and Somalia”.

Rishi Sunak championed low-tax freeports in his time at the Treasury. AP

Penny Mordaunt, trade minister

Like Mr Tugendhat, naval reservist Ms Mordaunt has made much of her military credentials and said she was inspired to serve her country by watching warships sail to the Falklands War in 1982.

As a development minister from 2017 and 2019, she advocated closer ties with Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey as part of a strategy to manage the fallout of the war in Syria.

She said UK support for countries hosting Syrian refugees had prevented the instability of the Syrian war from spilling over “onto the streets of Britain”.

In 2020, she urged ministers to promise that the fight against ISIS “remains offensive, not defensive” despite the group’s territorial defeat in Iraq and Syria.

As a junior trade minister, she has been part of the GCC negotiations and recently said a trade agreement with the Gulf could bring £1.6 billion ($1.9bn) to the British economy.

On the question of English Channel migrants, many of whom come from Iran, Iraq or Syria, Ms Mordaunt’s big idea is to deprive smugglers on the French coast of boats and fuel supplies, although she has not explained how.

Penny Mordaunt has spoken of containing the fallout from the war in Syria. Getty

Kemi Badenoch, former equalities minister

Like Mr Sunak, Ms Badenoch’s career as a minister for domestic issues has given her less exposure to foreign policy than some of her opponents.

In a statement to constituents on the crisis in Afghanistan last year, she said she supported Mr Johnson’s stance that any co-operation with the Taliban would depend on commitments on human rights being honoured.

“We need to show that we are a strong country that can't be pushed around,” she said at an online discussion for Tory supporters on Friday.

She suggested foreign aid could be cut further by saying in her launch speech: “You can reduce the amount we spend on international aid while still remaining a force for good in the world”.

Her most recent ministerial portfolio included the title of faith minister, in which role she urged religious leaders including prominent imam Sheikh Nuru Mohammed to encourage vaccine uptake in their communities.

She said the government was “committed to stamping out anti-Muslim hatred”, despite allegations from the opposition that the Conservatives have ignored Islamophobia at best or contributed to it at worst.

Kemi Badenoch has been Faith Minister in her most recent government role. Photo: UK Parliament
Updated: July 16, 2022, 5:45 AM