How Rishi Sunak will approach Middle East, energy and climate

New prime minister's Foreign Office team has experience dealing with Gulf countries

Allies of Rishi Sunak say he favours a hard line on Iran. Simon Walker / No 10 Downing Street
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UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has moved to restore Britain's credibility on the world stage by mending fences with fellow leaders in his first days in power.

He takes to the world stage as a relative unknown, having spent his ministerial career in domestic politics.

Building relations will be key to the UK improving its status on the global stage.

Mr Sunak quickly appointed a top team at the Foreign Office with experience dealing with Middle East countries.

Signals from his first few days in office are that he appreciates the need to be less combative than predecessor Liz Truss.

In a call with European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen, Mr Sunak stressed the importance of UK-EU relations and “working together as friends and allies”, Downing Street said.

“Hopefully the UK and EU can move to a more constructive and pragmatic relationship with Sunak now at the helm,” said Max Bergmann, an analyst on Europe and former US diplomatic official.

There was also a glimpse of closer relations with India, after Prime Minister Narendra Modi warmly commended the British Indian Mr Sunak and spoke of modernising the UK-India partnership.

And unlike Ms Truss, Mr Sunak was quick to open a channel of communication with Scotland's separatist First Minister Nicola Sturgeon.

“For Britain's interest, and frankly for those of wider Europe and the international community, as soon as British politics stabilises around a leader, the better it is for all of us,” former Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd told Sky News.

“We need Britain firmly back at the global table. Its voice is an important point in the world. When you've got rolling domestic political instability, the bottom line is, the level of political energy and policy energy within any government becomes distracted.”

The National looks at how Mr Sunak will deal with the Middle East and how he will handle key global topics such as the climate and energy issues which are set to play a large role in his administration.

Middle East

Mr Sunak opted for continuity at the Foreign Office by keeping former Middle East minister James Cleverly in the top post.

Mr Cleverly spent the day of the reshuffle in calls with fellow diplomats, including Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed, the UAE’s Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Co-operation.

Anne-Marie Trevelyan, a former trade secretary who launched talks on a UK-Gulf trade deal in June, was made a junior Foreign Office minister.

Supporters of Mr Sunak have said he favours a hard line on Iran and welcomes the Abraham Accords between the UAE, Israel and Bahrain.

MP Liam Fox told The National in August that Mr Sunak would support “maximum sanctions” on Iran to pressure it into an agreement that goes beyond its nuclear programme.

Mr Sunak “regards Iran as a major threat to regional stability and beyond because its ballistic missile programme is in breach of the UN resolutions and continues apace”, Mr Fox said.

Former Middle East minister James Cleverly was re-appointed foreign secretary. Reuters

Another Sunak backer, Theresa Villiers, wrote in Jewish News that Mr Sunak wants to capitalise on Britain’s relationships with Gulf states to widen the Abraham Accords.

Speaking to the Conservative Friends of Israel in August, Mr Sunak said Jerusalem was “indisputably the historic capital” and that he was open to recognising it that way.

But “having not been foreign secretary, there must be some sensitivities involved, because if it was that easy it would have been done by now”, Mr Sunak said.

Mr Sunak is also a champion of low-tax freeports, such as the Thames investment zone backed by the UAE’s DP World. As a rookie MP in 2016 he wrote a paper, The Free Ports Opportunity, after the Brexit vote.

As chancellor of the exchequer, he dismayed some MPs by cutting the UK’s foreign aid budget despite warnings of the humanitarian effects in Yemen and Syria.

Despite the cut, said he was proud of “food parcels stamped with a Union Jack arriving in famine-stricken countries such as Syria and Somalia”.

Climate and energy

One of Mr Sunak’s first announcements was to reinstate a ban on fracking for onshore gas.

His predecessor, Liz Truss, had moved to lift the ban, resulting in a farcical House of Commons vote that contributed to her downfall.

But Mr Sunak told MPs that he stood by the Conservative manifesto in 2019, which opposed fracking because of concerns from local communities.

Mr Sunak was elusive on whether he would support new onshore wind projects, another Truss initiative that is now in doubt.

He had promised to oppose onshore wind during his battle with Ms Truss for the votes of homeowning Tory members.

“The important thing is to focus on our long-term energy security. That means more renewables, more offshore wind and indeed more nuclear,” he said on Wednesday.

He did not mention oil and gas, but he agreed with Ms Truss during the summer campaign that Britain should exploit more of its North Sea fossil fuel reserves.

Rishi Sunak wants to use North Sea oil and gas to help make Britain energy independent. AFP

Another early move was to downgrade the role of Alok Sharma, Britain’s negotiator for the Cop27 summit, by dropping him from the Cabinet.

Caroline Lucas, the UK’s only Green Party MP, said it was “utterly shameful” to sideline Mr Sharma just weeks before the summit.

There is no word yet on whether King Charles III, a lifelong environmentalist, will attend Cop27, after Ms Truss reportedly told him not to.

Mr Sunak said in August that he was committed to the 2050 target for net zero greenhouse gas emissions.

But he said he would add a second target of making Britain energy independent by 2045.

He said at the time that he would split off a new Department of Energy from the business brief where it currently sits.

However, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy remains intact for now with Grant Shapps as its new chief.

Mr Shapps replaces the traditionalist Jacob Rees-Mogg, whose appointment by Ms Truss was described as “deeply unserious”.

The energy squeeze is expected to dominate Mr Sunak’s first months in office as Britain braces for an expensive winter.

Mr Sunak said he would make it a priority to bring down inflation, which he described as an enemy.

He said the government would “provide support to those who need it as we do so”.

But Chancellor Jeremy Hunt has said the government cannot afford to subsidise energy bills for the two-year period envisaged by Ms Truss.

Rishi Sunak becomes prime minister — in pictures

Updated: October 27, 2022, 11:49 AM