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New UK foreign secretary Cleverly to bolster Gulf ties

New foreign secretary James Cleverly was previously in charge of Middle East and North Africa at the UK Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office Creative Commons
New foreign secretary James Cleverly was previously in charge of Middle East and North Africa at the UK Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office
  • Minister’s MENA experience should strengthen relations
  • UK-Gulf partnership will “continue to be hugely significant”
  • 2022 first-quarter trade between UK and GCC nearly £35.5bn

New UK foreign secretary James Cleverly’s experience and knowledge of the Gulf region should help pave the way for a stronger start to relations between economies, according to industry professionals.

Cleverly was given his new role by Britain’s new prime minister Liz Truss, who appointed many of her closest allies to key roles in her new cabinet.

The new government will be the UK’s first without a white man holding one of the so-called four great offices of state.

Cleverly, whose mother hails from Sierra Leone, is Britain’s first black foreign minister.

Kwasi Kwarteng, whose parents came from Ghana in the 1960s, was appointed Chancellor of the Exchequer, making him Britain’s first black finance minister.

Suella Braverman, who is of Indian heritage, was assigned the role of home secretary.

Meanwhile, Kemi Badenoch, of Nigerian heritage, was appointed as international trade secretary.

Prior to his brief stint serving as education secretary since July, Cleverly was in charge of the Middle East and North Africa brief after joining the FCDO as a minister in February 2020.

The brief included responsibility for dealing with Iran over the detention of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and responding to the Taliban’s recapture of Afghanistan in August last year.

In this role, Cleverly travelled to the Middle East several times, including to the UAE, Kuwait, Oman and Qatar, and in October 2020 he hailed UK-Gulf ties as being at their “strongest ever”.

“On my visit to Oman and Qatar, I have seen the true strength of the bilateral relationships between our great countries,” he said.

“From co-operation on security, to strengthening our trade links, to sharing our unique development expertise, our ties are helping to improve our mutual prosperity.”

Cleverly was in Bahrain when the country appointed its first ambassador to Israel under the Abraham Accords, later describing it as “genuinely a joyous occasion”.

“The UK-Gulf partnership will continue to be hugely significant under Truss’s premiership,” said Natasha Moor, senior advisor at Manara Global and former Downing Street chief press officer for Boris Johnson.

“The new prime minister and foreign secretary James Cleverly have worked closely together at the Foreign Office, and will bring their strong grasp, experience, expertise, and knowledge of the Gulf to relations.

Moor added that Cleverly, as a former Minister for the Middle East, has visited the region on several occasions and so understands the Gulf economies and will be looking to further build on the strong relationships already established.

“We can expect them to take the same approach and build on their efforts to maintain and boost investment, trade and cooperation with the region.”

Prime minister Truss has previously been vocal about the Gulf being an important economic partner to the UK post-Brexit. In December last year, as the then foreign secretary she hosted GCC leaders to identify and build on areas for cooperation.

“I want us to have much deeper links in key areas like trade, investment, development and cybersecurity with a part of the world that is important to Britain’s long-term interests,” she said at the time.

She added closer security and economic ties with the Gulf “will deliver jobs and opportunities for the British people and help make us all safer.”

On 23 August, discussions to broker a free trade agreement (FTA) between the UK and GCC commenced, with Truss describing the GCC states as strong economic partners of the UK. She said that an FTA would enhance the UK’s economy and provide new investment opportunities.

AGBI analysis of UK Department of International Trade statistics showed that trade between the UK and the GCC countries totalled nearly £35.5 billion for the year to the end of the first quarter of 2022.

An FTA, which offers tax and other commercial incentives, could further boost the trading relationship, and build upon recent agreements struck between the UK and separate GCC nations, including Oman, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar, to strengthen economic cooperation.

“For the UK PM, the trade deals such as the one with the GCC will be vitally important as she prioritises boosting the UK economy,” said Moor.

“With only 18 months before a likely general election, there will be pressure on the government to quickly deliver on these priorities.”

Moor added: “Away from domestic challenges, the foreign secretary alongside the new international trade secretary Kemi Badenoch and wide network of trade commissioners will be driving forward new action and ambition in the Gulf, and will likely also put a renewed focus on new opportunities across the Indo-Pacific region.

”UK exports to Asia have slowed in recent years, with analysts observing that securing an FTA with the Gulf could be crucial to the UK’s aim to diversify its trading partners, especially as it aims to tap the Indo-Pacific region.”

Chris Doyle, director of the Council of Arab British Understanding, added: “The whole leadership election has perhaps put a brake on the UK-Gulf trade talks but the direction of travel is clear and consistent.”

“I think the trade talks will proceed regardless of everything else – there is no reason why Britain wouldn’t pursue them.

“But for Truss herself, her great priority, without question, is going to be domestic and it’s going to be about the economy and energy. Everything else is going to be subservient to that and the big foreign policy issue will remain Russia-Ukraine.”

UK prime minister Liz Truss and her newly appointed cabinet [Liz Truss/Twitter]

As foreign secretary, Truss was an open critic of China as well as Russia, and Cleverly has indicated that her government will take a tough line with both Moscow and Beijing.

“We absolutely have to stand firm in our support to President (Volodymyr) Zelensky and the people of Ukraine,” he told Reuters on Monday 5 September shortly after Truss was announced as the new Conservative leader.

“And I have no doubt we will continue to be as firm friends now as we have been under Boris Johnson.”

In February 2022, Johnson promoted James Cleverly to minister of state for Europe and North America, effectively serving a deputy foreign secretary role while Truss was occupied with the war in Ukraine.

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