Skip to main content

ANALYSIS: Shock appointment puts Boris Johnson on Middle East collision course

Rude, crude and unapologetically undiplomatic, is new UK foreign secretary really best man for job?
Then-London mayor Boris Johnson salutes photographers as he rides bicycle in front of Burj Khalifa, world's tallest tower, during visit to Dubai (AFP)

The surprise appointment of Boris Johnson as British foreign secretary has already raised eyebrows in some quarters, with politicians, analysts and media pundits questioning whether his famous buffooneries will make him a laughing stock on the international stage. 

Forgoing the usual diplomatic niceties, French foreign minister Jean-Marc Ayrault was quick to accuse Johnson of telling “lies” and having his “back against the wall,” while his German counterpart Frank-Walter Steinmeier said Johnson’s behaviour over Brexit had been “irresponsible”.

US State Department spokesman Mark Toner was caught on camera trying not to laugh after getting the news, while Labour Party leadership hopeful Angela Eagle had to pause during a speech to turn away from the audience.

But it is in his dealings with the Middle East that many critics fear Johnson will fall particularly short.

A London-based Middle Eastern affairs analyst told Middle East Eye he was in shock and called him a "f***ing idiot”. 

British diplomats to Turkey, in particular, are believed to be scrambling. Johnson, whose great-grandfather was Turkish, was long seen as firm supporter of Ankara, but seems to have reversed his position. 

In May, Johnson won a prize in the right-wing Spectator magazine, which he used to edit, for an obscene poem about Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in which Johnson described him as, among other things, a “w***er,” and also indicated that Erdogan fornicated with goats.

Earlier this week, prior to Johnson’s appointment, Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildrim expressed his disappointment with the MP’s comments.

"May God help him and reform him, and I hope he won't make any more mistakes and tries to make it up with the Turks,” he told the BBC.

Perhaps more disturbing for Ankara are Johnson's past claims of sympathy for the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which is embroiled in a guerrilla war with the Turkish state and is listed as a terrorist organisation by the UK and US governments.

Speaking to ITV in December about the case of Silan Ozcelik, a British citizen prosecuted for attempting to join the PKK to fight against the Islamic State (IS) group, Johnson said he hoped that Ozcelik would avoid an "absurd punishment" and added that his "sympathies are very much with the PKK".

MEE contacted the Turkish government for a response to Johnson's appointment. None was forthcoming by the time of publication, but a Turkish official was quoted in the Guardian as saying there was "no reason to doubt that the United Kingdom will continue to treat PKK as what it is – a terrorist organisation”.

Turkey analyst Ziya Meral told MEE it was unlikely that the personal slight would lead to a major breakdown in relations between the two countries.

“Inter-state relationships go beyond particular individuals,” he told MEE.

“This is all the more so for British foreign policy machinery. While Johnson's personal influence will be limited, UK remains as one of the very few allies of Turkey in Europe and wider West, thus personal tensions won't impact formal relations.”

He added, however, in reference to Turkey seeking to join the European Union, that the UK’s vote to leave the EU, which Johnson supported, meant “Turkey is left with no major ally that is consistent on its membership. This makes Turkey's bid ever more distant.”

Michael Stephens, a research fellow for Middle East Studies at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), told MEE that while it was initially a “draw-breath moment” to see Johnson appointed, he later concluded that Johnson was unlikely to effect any major changes in policy.

“Boris is very crude in the way he expresses his opinions - but if you look at what he’s saying, if you look at the policies he tends to adhere to, he doesn’t actually go against the main flow of what the government itself is saying,” Stephens said.

He described Johnson’s position on the region as “Tory globalist,” in the sense that he supported the Gulf states, was keen on Iraqi Kurdistan and Kurdish nationalism more broadly, and made public denunciations of IS.

“I think what he’s essentially saying is that we needed to double down on our alliances with those people that we identify as allies, be less apologetic about them and follow those through,” Stephens said.

Johnson, however, may take a more conciliatory approach towards Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, compared with his predecessor Philip Hammond, some analysts say.

In an article for the Telegraph in December, Johnson wrote that although Russian President Vladimir Putin may resemble "Dobby the house-elf" of the Harry Potter movies, it would be the lesser of two evils to work with him and Assad to tackle IS in Syria - although Johnson also called for the establishment of “a timetable for Assad to step down and a plan for a new Syrian government.”

The Russian ambassador welcomes Johnson into the diplomatic fray

Later in January, in an article titled "Bravo for Assad," Johnson praised the Syrian president and his forces for retaking the historic city of Palmyra, while again referring to Assad’s government as “one of the vilest regimes on Earth.”

Writing on Thursday for Chatham House, MENA programme project manager Tim Eaton said that considering his sympathetic words for Assad, "Johnson’s appointment is likely to concern the Syrian opposition, whose list of friends is small and diminishing".

He added that Prime Minister Theresa May’s decision to appoint Johnson, who stood against her in the first round of the race to succeed David Cameron at Number 10 Downing Street, would "raise questions in the Middle East over her true position, and her judgement".

However, RUSI’s Stephens argued that if Johnson may be seen to have a more accommodating attitude towards Assad, this simply reflects the shifting position of both the UK government and its allies in the region.

“There is a general consensus that some form of the regime is going to stay,” Stephens said.

“The position on Assad is something that is constantly under review… If you notice that British government positions on Assad in the last 18 months have softened a little bit, so someone like Boris having the opinions that he does is not quite so unpalatable as perhaps if we had had this conversation in early 2014.”

He added it was inevitable that Johnson at some point would “make an absolute gaffe”.

Fans of the new foreign minister, however, have rushed to his defence, repeatedly calling him charismatic and saying he would breathe new life into foreign policy.

Sir Christopher Meyer, a former ambassador to America and Germany, told Sky News Johnson's appointment was “just what we [Britain] need”.  

"There needs to be now a major retooling of our foreign policy, which flows from the referendum result and the fact that Brexit means Brexit,” he said.

The UK's former ambassador to France, Sir Peter Ricketts, also told media that Johnson was a "warm, charismatic" person and that people would “adapt to him very quickly”.

Johnson’s predecessor Hammond, who became chancellor of the exchequer in the reshuffle, also praised the Uxbridge and South Ruislip MP.

"And I think Boris will be very good in this job. Boris is a very big figure in the Conservative Party, he is a big figure in the country, he is a national figure,” he said.

But Johnson’s antics in the Middle East have already landed him in hot water with some critics. 

In November, Johnson was forced to cut short a trip to the Palestinian territories after describing the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement as "completely crazy" and the preserve of a "few lefty academics".

He added that he thought it was absurd to boycott “a country that when all is said and done is the only democracy in the region, the only place that has in my view a pluralist open society".

As a result of his comments, the Sharek Youth Forum - the group that invited Johnson - said that he "fails to acknowledge our very existence as Palestinians".

On Thursday, the Times of Israel described Johnson as an "Israel backer," while Daniel Taub, an analyst and former UK ambassador to Israel, described him as a "very outspoken friend of Israel".

“He is a very enthusiastic supporter, and his relationship with Israel goes back a long way,” he told the Jerusalem Post.

Yet conversely, in what could be seen as an example of Johnson's notorious policy flip-flops, he used stronger words than then-prime minister David Cameron in condemning the Israeli assault on the Gaza Strip in the summer of 2014.

"I can’t for the life of me see how this can be a sensible strategy," he told BBC radio.

"I think it is disproportionate, I think it is ugly and it is tragic and I don’t think it will do Israel any good in the long run."

Johnson was also a supporter of the Iraq invasion in 2003, but has since become a critic, on a recent occasion describing former prime minister Tony Blair as "unhinged" and as showing "unbelievable arrogance" for refusing to take responsibility for the chaos that erupted after the war.

Stay informed with MEE's newsletters

Sign up to get the latest alerts, insights and analysis, starting with Turkey Unpacked

Middle East Eye delivers independent and unrivalled coverage and analysis of the Middle East, North Africa and beyond. To learn more about republishing this content and the associated fees, please fill out this form. More about MEE can be found here.