The UK's relations with Saudi Arabia and Bahrain - Foreign Affairs Committee Contents

5  FCO resources in the Gulf

Staff resources

220.  The UK has a substantial presence in the Gulf, with an embassy in every Gulf state, as well as an additional consular office and UKTI Trade Office in Saudi Arabia. Across the Gulf region as a whole, the FCO told us it had increased its staffing since 2010 through the creation of four new UK-based posts, and that local staffing was being increased "where required".[416] In his written evidence, former Ambassador to Saudi Arabia Sir Tom Phillips told the Committee that the "in a time of resource cutbacks the priority of the work done by posts in the Gulf region was recognised" through the allocation of extra staff.[417]


221.  In June 2013 the Foreign Office disclosed in response to a Freedom of Information request that of the 16 British Ambassadors in the Arab world, only three have the highest level of fluency (Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia). In the Gulf states, there was a relatively low level of proficiency except for in Saudi Arabia:[418]
Arabic proficiency of Ambassador
Below A2 Confidence
A2 Confidence
B2 Functional
United Arab Emirates
A2 Confidence
Saudi Arabia
C2 Extensive

Proficiency key: C2= the most advanced level of fluency; C1= roughly equivalent to degree level; B2= Can engage confidently in the local language on a wide range of topics; A2= Can deal confidently with routine everyday issues.

222.  Former diplomats who have appeared as witnesses (Robin Lamb, Sir Roger Tomkys, Sir Alan Munro) expressed disappointment at a perceived deterioration in Arabic language capacity within the Diplomatic Service in the Gulf. Sir Roger Tomkys told us that in the 1980s, it was "very much the exception" that there should be an ambassador in an Arab-speaking post who had not been through the FCO's Middle East Centre for Arabic Studies (MECAS) process of 18 months.[419] He added that "downgrading linguistic competence is a terrible mistake."[420] Robin Lamb said that "most of us spoke Arabic in the Gulf. I think that may have diminished since."[421] He added that "If you do speak Arabic, even those who speak English will warm to you […] you have shown enough interest in them to study their language."[422]

223.  The Government said that it had recognised the problem with Arabic language capacity and already begun to take steps to begin "reversing the trend of being less interested in local speech".[423] Alistair Burt highlighted the FCO's Diplomatic Excellence programme, which aims to strengthen diplomatic 'core skills' including languages, as well as the re-opening of the FCO language school. The Government has also designated a further six UK-based roles in the Gulf as Arabic speaker slots to encourage the development of language skills, and Alistair Burt told us that 60% of staff in speaker slots had reached "target level" in speaking Arabic, and approximately 75% have some level of proficiency.[424] A further 25 members of staff are undergoing full-time Arabic training in preparation for their posting to the region; a further 70 are undertaking after-work classes in London, and 80 are using an e-learning package.[425] He told us that "once our trained speakers are in place we will have 40% more speakers of Arabic in our posts overseas than in 2010."[426]

224.  At the senior levels, Alistair Burt told us that the Government was "seeking to increase the pool of those who will be in position for the senior positions of Arabic speakers" and that it is "steadily getting more important" for Ambassadors to speak Arabic. He said that it would take some time for the changes to trickle through, but he assured us that in the meantime, "where we need an Arabic speaker, there is an Arabic speaker" and that 70% of heads of mission in Arabic countries speak Arabic.[427] The Minister added that in the Gulf

[...]it is not uniform, but where Arabic is absolutely essential to do the job, as in Saudi Arabia, there is a very fluent Arabic speaker in post. It is less necessary in Bahrain, and therefore there is not an Arabic speaker as head of mission in Bahrain, but across the Gulf the majority do speak Arabic and we are increasing the number of those who are capable of speaking it.[428]

225.  Jon Davies, Additional Director of the FCO's Middle East and North Africa Department, told us that when recruiting for a post, language skills were just one of a number of criteria that were taken into account, including leadership skills. However, he agreed that language skills were important and told us that they were "getting more attention."[429] Since we took evidence, the FCO re-opened its language school in September 2013. The Government announced that the centre will offer 70,000 hours of teaching for up to 1,000 full and part-time language students each year.

226.  We welcome the Government's efforts to improve the FCO's Arabic language skills in the Gulf, in particular by designating more posts as 'speaker slots'. However, it appears that 25% of staff in those speaker slots have low levels of Arabic proficiency, and 40% have not reached the required standard for their grade, undermining the effect of this policy. For reasons of public diplomacy (to local television interviews, for example), as well as to demonstrate respect for the partner state, it is important that high-level FCO diplomats speak Arabic even in those states where they can manage in English or with a translator. In this context, we welcome the re-opening of the FCO's language school, fulfilling a pledge made by the Foreign Secretary in 2011.

227.  We understand that it will take time to re-build Arabic language capacity, particularly at the senior levels of the FCO, but we believe that it is important that the Government demonstrate its commitment to the goal of improving language skills at all levels of the FCO and incentivise FCO staff to learn Arabic. We recommend that the FCO set a timeframe in which it expects to make a minimum level of Arabic language skills mandatory for those who wish to be appointed to senior diplomatic posts in the region.

416   Ev 141 Back

417   Ev 111 Back

418   'British Ambassadors struggle with Arabic', The Telegraph, 31 May 2013 Back

419   Q 63 Back

420   Q 64 Back

421   Q 63 Back

422   Q 64 Back

423   Q391 Back

424   Q 392 and Q 394 Back

425   Q 394 Back

426   Q 395 Back

427   Q 391 Back

428   Ibid. Back

429   Q 395 Back

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Prepared 22 November 2013