Prime Minister Boris Johnson: A boon or disaster for the Middle East?

Boris Johnson is announced as the new Conservative leader and British prime minister on Tuesday
Prime Minister Boris Johnson: A boon or disaster for the Middle East?
New Conservative Party leader and incoming prime minister Boris Johnson. (BEN STANSALL/AFP/Getty Images)
By Alicia Buller
Tue 23 Jul 2019 01:57 PM

Boris Johnson was announced as the new Conservative leader and British prime minister on Tuesday.

Johnson and British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt have been jostling to win a month-long bid to be the new Conservative leader after Theresa May’s resignation following her failed Brexit bid, but Johnson is seen as a clear favourite.

The outcome of the ballot of about 160,000 Tory members was revealed at just after midday in London and Johnson will officially become prime minister on Wednesday. He won with twice as many votes as Hunt.

Johnson has said he is determined to take the UK out of the European Union October 31, if necessary without a deal. He has said all ministers must "reconcile" themselves to this.

"We're going to get Brexit done on October 31," Johnson said moments after being declared the winner of the Conservative party leadership race.

Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond, Secretary of State for Justice David Gauke and Secretary of State for International Development Rory Stewart have said they cannot support this and will resign if Johnson is elected.

Wes Schwalje, chief operating officer of Dubai-based research firm Tahseen Consulting, says Johnson – if elected – will be mainly focused on Brexit and uniting his party before looking to cement a specific Middle East strategy.

“With Brexit looming in the background and domestic political brinksmanship detracting attention from foreign policy, there has been very little discussion on what Boris Johnson’s appointment as Prime Minister might mean for the UK’s priorities in the Middle East,” he said.

Chris Doyle, director of the London-based Council for British Arab Understanding, said the appointment of Johnson as British PM will herald a ‘massive change in approach and style of government’.

“Johnson is more of an extrovert and more of a risk taker than his predecessor, Theresa May. He will take a more brash and bold approach – he likes to use humour and he has a celebrity cult following; in some ways his approach has similarities to [former UK Prime Minister] Winston Churchill,” Doyle said.

“However, Johnson has a lot of historical baggage in terms of inflammatory comments he has made [about Muslims]. And, unlike May, he’s not a details person and while he’s very intelligent, he’s not known for a massive work ethic.”

Tahseen Consulting’s Schwalje said: “The most immediate diplomatic test Johnson will face is determining how to respond to Iran’s seizure of a British-flagged tanker and attempts to impede ships in the Strait of Hormuz.

“Despite tough talk, negotiations – potentially involving some backchannel diplomacy by key regional allies Saudi Arabia and the UAE – will likely deescalate the standoff.”

Doyle said that while Johnson may have his eyes on a US trade deal and be keen to be closer to the American president than his predecessor, the new UK PM is unlikely to fully back Trump’s ‘maximum pressure’ approach to Iran.

After resolving the Iran standoff, Johnson’s next priority will be to ‘fast-track’ ongoing trade and investment discussions with the GCC countries and in high potential frontier markets like Algeria, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Morocco, and Turkey, predicted Schwalje.

The COO added that the security situation in the wider Middle East region, increasingly complicated by the influence of proxy interests, will likely spur Johnson to pick up efforts to firm up relationships with key regional allies.

The European-led maritime protection mission is being pursued as a stopgap to support safe passage in the Hormuz with likely inclusion of the US at a later stage, said Schwalje.

“Despite Brexit and a complicated relationship with Europe in the near term, Johnson is unlikely to move closer to the US position on Iran as a sop for scoring a better trade deal,” he said.

Of Jared Kushner’s recently proffered Palestine peace deal, Schwalje said he does not expect Johnson to back the initiative.

“So far the response to the so-called “deal of the century” has been non-committal. While economic development is often a precursor to political change, discussions will need to progress beyond investment pledges before countries can defensibly back the Peace to Prosperity Plan,” he said.

“Several countries in the region have been vocal about what it will take for the plan to move forward. It seems unlikely Johnson would back the plan at this point in time without more political substance being revealed and the commitment of Saudi Arabia and the UAE to the proposal.”

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