5 FCO resources in the Gulf
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
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.
ARABIC LANGUAGE SKILLS
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
|Arabic proficiency of Ambassador
|Below A2 Confidence
|United Arab Emirates
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.
He added that "downgrading linguistic competence is a terrible
Robin Lamb said that "most of us spoke Arabic in the Gulf.
I think that may have diminished since."
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."
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".
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.
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.
He told us that "once our trained speakers are in place we
will have 40% more speakers of Arabic in our posts overseas than
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.
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.
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."
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
Ev 111 Back
'British Ambassadors struggle with Arabic', The Telegraph,
31 May 2013 Back
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