Britain's influence in the Middle East has 'dipped', minister admits

Andrew Mitchell says PM Rishi Sunak is determined to improve relations with Gulf states

Andrew Mitchell has said the UK's efforts to boost Gulf ties are 'moving in the right direction'. EPA
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Britain’s influence in the Middle East has “dipped” due to a deterioration of its soft power but is working to rebuild relations, UK minister Andrew Mitchell has told The National.

At a Chatham House event at the Conservative Party Conference in Manchester, Andrew Mitchell, who serves as the Foreign Office Minister for Development and Africa, was asked by The National if he lamented the loss of British soft power in the Middle East and how it might be restored.

“I completely agree, in terms of the relationships in the Middle East,” he said. “But I think they're getting better and I accept that they dipped back a bit recently.”

He said Prime Minister Rishi Sunak was putting significant emphasis on restoring the relationship that included attending Cop28 in Dubai.

“We've got Cop28 coming up and a lot of other work going on with Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the UAE so I think we're moving in the right direction,” Mr Mitchell said.

“We have to make sure that we use the soft power that we had to drive forward Britain's objectives.”

Leading Conservative figures have said they regret Britain’s retreat from the Middle East, particularly with the scrapping of the BBC Radio Arabic service in January after 85 years on air.

Britain's influence further diminished after it axed the specific role of Minister for the Middle East and North Africa early last year. Lord Tariq Ahmad is currently the minister for the Middle East, North Africa, South Asia, UN and the Commonwealth.

Mr Mitchell added that Britain had increased funding for the BBC World Service but did not suggest BBC Arabic would be restored.

He argued that British influence on the region could soon improve with the restoration of its full overseas aid budget in 2027. In 2020 the budget was reduced from 0.7 per cent of GDP to 0.5 per cent, a cut of £3 billion.

Mr Mitchell also suggested that more money would be freed up for international aid if the Illegal Immigration Act comes into force. The act would stop overseas money from paying for accommodation for asylum seekers in Britain.

He is set to publish a white paper on international development, having taken the unusual step of getting cross-party support.

“We live in an era where the international system is more on the back foot than at any time since the late 1940s but we need it more than any time,” Mr Mitchell said. “Why? Because you've got to address the problems of climate change, migration, pandemics, protectionism, terrorism, all these things require more international co-operation at a time when narrow nationalism is pretty rampant.”

Mr Mitchell hoped that this would be addressed in the white paper that has had contributions from 60 countries and would be “read with enthusiasm in all the international development centres around the world, Paris, New York, Washington, Addis Ababa, and will really make a difference”.

Mr Mitchell was among those who decried Boris Johnson’s decision to prevent Britain from contributing 0.7 per cent of GDP to the Official Development Assistance fund, cutting it to 0.5 per cent.

But he indicated that new Treasury tests on Britain’s economy would allow the 0.7 per cent rate to return by 2027.

He was also asked by Chatham House director Bronwen Maddox if development money would be spent on housing illegal refugees in Britain would result in “more money for overseas aid?”

He replied: “Yes, it means that it’s all within the development budget.”

While Mr Mitchell was strongly against the merger of the former Department for International Development with the Foreign Office in 2020, he stated that difficulties were finally coming to an end.

But if the two departments were split apart again, as Labour could possibly do if elected, “I think many of my officials would reach for their revolver if they thought they had another five years of structural change ahead of them,” he warned.

Updated: October 03, 2023, 12:58 PM