Boris and the Middle East

Britain's continuing political upheaval resulted not only in the appointment of a new prime minister yesterday but also a new foreign secretary, Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson – referred to by almost everyone simply as "Boris" or "BoJo". 

In some ways, Boris and the Foreign Office ought to be a perfect match: he was educated at Britain's top public school, Eton, and studied classics at Balliol College, Oxford. He also had a spell as the Daily Telegraph's correspondent in Brussels – a city he has spent years portraying as an ogre that deprives British people of their rights.

But the Foreign Office is also an institution steeped in the subtleties of diplomatic language, a place where disagreements with other countries are usually couched in the politest possible terms. Boris, on the other hand, is not a man who beats about the bush. Just two months ago he won the top prize in a bizarre contest organised by the right-wing Spectator magazine for composing the most offensive poem about Turkey's president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan:

There was a young fellow from Ankara 
Who was a terrific wankerer
Till he sowed his wild oats
With the help of a goat
But he didn't even stop to thankera.

On another occasion, he managed to insult both the Queen and black people in a single sentence: he explained Her Majesty's fondness for the British Commonwealth by saying that "it supplies her with regular cheering crowds of flag-waving piccaninnies". 

As far as British policy in the Middle East is concerned, we shall probably hear less of the customary guff about Britain calling on "all sides to exercise restraint"; Boris has already made clear where he stands. He's a fan of the repressive Gulf monarchies ("our dynamic friends") and of Israel ("Churchillian"). Last March, in a column headed "Bravo for Assad", he also celebrated the Syrian regime's recapture of Palmyra from ISIS.

Agree with him or not, Boris is Britain's most entertaining politician. He built his career by saying controversial and sometimes shocking things. But by cultivating the image of an upper-class buffoon he has managed to get away with some extraordinary gaffes – basically by turning them into jokes.

His latest mishap was accidentally winning the referendum on Britain's EU membership. After much deliberation, he opted for Brexit and took the lead in its campaign. Many viewed this as a tactical decision rather than a principled one: a prank intended to cause trouble for his former Bullingdon Club chum, prime minister David Cameron, and prepare Boris's own path towards Downing Street. 

In the end, though, he out-manoeuvred himself by campaigning too successfully. He had based his calculations on Brexit losing the referendum, but narrowly. When Brexit won, the country was plunged into crisis.

While many of the Brexit supporters were wary of foreigners, Boris took a different line, talking expansively about developing relations with the rest of the world to compensate for leaving the EU. By appointing him as foreign secretary, the incoming prime minister, Theresa May, has given him an opportunity to deliver what he promised. Some are already suggesting this is a devious ploy by May – that she is merely giving him enough rope to hang himself.

But before jumping to any conclusions about Boris's prospects as foreign secretary it's worth recalling that he was elected – twice – as mayor of London and his mayorship didn't turn into the disaster that many had expected.

During the referendum campaign Boris was often depicted as Britain's version of Donald Trump – and one thing they both have in common is wild hairstyles. But, unlike Trump, Boris is far from ignorant. Here he is, in a short video, talking intelligently about al-Azhar University (a place that Trump has probably never heard of):

But don't expect any namby-pamby talk from Boris about an ethical foreign policy. One of the consequences of Brexit (if it actually happens) is that Britain will be looking to do more business with non-EU countries – and that includes the wealthy but authoritarian regimes of the Gulf. 

As mayor of London, Boris spent a lot of time cultivating them and encouraging their investment. Under his incumbency, billions of petrodollars poured into London. Boris hailed himself as "mayor of the eighth Emirate" while assuring people that the city would not turn into "Dubai on Thames".

Developing financial relations with the Gulf was a two-way process and in January this year Boris faced criticism when it was revealed that the Greater London Authority had invested £100m of public money in Riyad Bank, which is 51% owned by the Saudi state.

Three years ago, following a visit to Qatar, Boris wrote an article headed "We can’t afford to ignore our dynamic friends in the East". The Gulf is booming, its people love Britain and they want to invest here, it said. Let’s encourage them. Rather unexpectedly, though, the article began by talking about Qataris and camels: 

They eat camel. They milk camel. They race camels. They even have camel beauty contests.

And I had a superb conversation with a learned sheikh who sat me down in his majlis and explained the finer points of camel attractiveness – what to look for in a truly ravishing creature. It’s not just the eyelashes or the length of the neck or the shapeliness of the thighs, he said, though all of those are important. “It is the lips,” he exclaimed, with a faraway look in his eye.

It seems that a really sensuous camel has a droopiness about the lower lip.

But he also informed readers that "the Qataris are wearing M&S underwear beneath their kanduras":

They are eating in Gordon Ramsay’s restaurants. They are driving Land Rovers and phoning with Vodafone – and last year the UK exported goods worth a record £1.3 billion to Qatar alone; not bad for a place with only 1.8 million people. It was a joy to hear the natives speak spontaneously of their affection for Britain. I lost count of the number of times I was told: “London is my second home.”

Readers' comments posted below the article were no less forthright:

  • "Apologist extraordinaire for the delusional, the crooked, the muddled, the bullying, the dysfunctional and the vulgar. Prime Ministerial material if ever I saw it..."
  • "What's dynamic about getting lucky riding a camel over an underground reservoir of oil and claiming it as a sovereign, family despot wealth fund?"
  • "These are the people this cretin would surely sell our country to given the chance."

Over in Qatar, Doha News seemed unsure what to make of it.

We might, perhaps, hope that Boris's efforts to befriend Gulf despots will be blown off course by some indiscretion or injudicious choice of language. But it's equally possible that the despots will be fascinated by Boris in much the same way that Boris was fascinated by Qatari camels – as a real-life stereotype of a posh eccentric Englishman.

Last year, however, his three-day visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories – again, aimed at drumming up trade – ran into trouble. Several Palestinian organisations cancelled planned meetings because of his overtly pro-Israel stance. The Guardian reported:

During his three-day trade mission, Johnson repeatedly criticised calls for a boycott of Israeli goods, describing the campaign as “completely crazy” and promoted by a “few lefty academics” in corduroy jackets pursuing a cause ...

Other remarks made by Johnson during his visit combined his usual flippancy with hyperbolic enthusiasm for Israel and patronising comments about “Arabs”, not least in his inaugural Winston Churchill speech in Jerusalem.

He said in the speech: “If we look at the history of modern Israel there is no doubt that the comparison can be extended, and that there is something Churchillian about the country he helped to create. There is the audacity, the bravery, the willingness to take risks with feats of outrageous derring-do.”

He added: “When [Churchill] wrote his 1922 white paper that paved the way for accelerated Jewish entry into Palestine, Churchill imagined Jews and Arabs living side by side, with technically expert Jewish farmers helping the Arabs to drive tractors.”