Foreign AffairsSupplementary written evidence from Sir Tom Phillips

I note that the issue of resources in the three UK missions in Saudi Arabia (Riyadh, the Consulate General in Jeddah, and the Trade Office in Al Khobar) has come up during the FAC evidence sessions.

Had it been raised with me during the 5 March session I would have said:

I am aware that there have been significant changes in the staffing pattern over time eg in the number of UK-based section engage on commercial work.

It should not be assumed that such changes mean a reduction in the level of service offered: we have some very capable local staff in the UKTI teams and other parts of the missions in Saudi Arabia, often with the relevant language skills, and there has been a worldwide trend towards greater localisation.

The in-country resources over which I had oversight while Ambassador comprised about 25 UK-based staff and about 115 local staff, with an annual budget of £6.4m. I also had an overall coordination role in relation to the Arabian Peninsula network of UK missions.

On the trade/commercial front, I made a point of being available for senior British businessmen when they visited Saudi Arabia, and frequently hosted or attended trade-related events/receptions eg in relation to visiting trade missions including visits by delegations led by the Lord Mayor of London. On occasions I accompanied such missions in their calls on Saudi interlocutors, as I did during the mission led by HRH The Duke of York and Lord Green in September 2011.

Specifically on the trade issue, if I had a worry on the resource front it was that the UKTI effort as a whole might not do as much as possible to encourage ‘new entrants’ particularly SMEs to enter the Saudi market, which can look quite daunting from the outside. I assume that part of the reason for the OMIS discount scheme now on offer is to address this issue. But what such companies need is not just market/sector intelligence, but political/cultural briefing to give them a real feel for a country such as Saudi Arabia.

Looking at the issue of FCO resources deployed in the Middle East, Middle Eastern posts were as I recall excluded from the first tranche of the ‘network shift’ exercise because of the uncertainties of the Arab Spring. And when they were subsequently looked at, we received additional resources in Saudi Arabia and, as I recall, elsewhere in the Arabian Peninsula network. That is not to say that good use could not have been made of further additional staff/resources, but only that in a time of resource cutbacks the priority of the work done by posts in the Gulf region was recognised, although I understand that unlike other high growth markets such as China and Brazil, the Gulf region has not benefitted from any additional FCO ‘prosperity’ resources.

Any study of changes in the pattern of resources over time also needs to take account of the increasing use of new technology. While this has in some ways created additional demands, it has also enabled faster and more effective ways to achieve results. As one example of the new possibilities, I would point to the initiation during my time in Saudi Arabia of joint reporting by posts in the Arabian Peninsula, to achieve what was called ‘network effect’ in terms of enhancing London’s understanding of particular issues. A classified VTC link between posts was essential in enabling rapid coordination, and discussions over this system with London and others in the wider network represented in my view one of the ways in which more effective working patterns need to be weighed into the resource equation.

New technology was also important in the pursuit of greater savings and efficiencies by ‘hubbing’ some of the administrative functions common to posts in the Arabian Peninsula network.

7 March 2013

Prepared 19th November 2013