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Britain and the Gulf States

Mohammed Shakeel
Commentary, 7 November 2012
The Gulf Region, UK Defence, Middle East and North Africa
The UK Prime Minister’s visit to the Gulf region was dominated by the need to solidify defence ties and repair recently strained political relations.

The UK Prime Minister's visit to the Gulf region was dominated by the need to solidify defence ties and repair recently strained political relations.

The Prime Minister, David Cameron, made a brief but crucial visit to the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia earlier this week in order to bolster Britain's trade relations with two of its closest strategic allies. Unofficially, Mr Cameron's visit was also aimed at calming tempers in the Gulf region after Britain's apparent overzealous support for the Arab Spring. Mr Cameron met senior government officials in Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Jeddah to discuss deepening trade ties, especially in the defence sector. However, the Prime Minister will also have sought to allay Emirati and Saudi concerns over Britain's acceptance of groups like the Muslim Brotherhood which now dominate Egypt's new political landscape. Striking the right political and economic balance has proven increasingly tricky for the UK since the onset of the Arab Spring. The economic strength of the Gulf region necessitates ever-stronger relations between Britain and the Gulf states, which to date have brought the UK billions of pounds in construction, defence and business contracts annually.

The Prime Minister's visit was principally aimed at promoting the sale of Eurofighter Typhoon jets to the UAE and Saudi militaries. The UAE has expressed interest in buying sixty Typhoon jets while Saudi Arabia is considering a 'substantial' second order on top of the seventy-two jets it has already purchased. These sales could be worth up to £6 billion with further purchases expected to be made by Oman.  Arms sales have long been the biggest component of Britain's trade with the wider Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), which includes Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. British exports to the GCC were estimated to be worth some £17 billion in 2011. The UAE and Saudi Arabia are ranked as the world's ninth and 11th largest arms importers in the 2007-2011 period. British weapons manufacturers have vied for this market share against US and European arms companies. The UAE is Britain's largest export market in the Middle East and the UK's sixteenth biggest export market globally, according to the UK Trade and Investment agency. Britain also has a substantial share of Saudi Arabia's import market, accounting for over 40 per cent of the country's defence imports. Regional unease over Iran's nuclear activities, in particular, has led most GCC states to substantially boost their defence spending.  Military hardware is currently being manoeuvred around the region and its waterways.  For its part, Iran's defence establishment continues to announce progress on its military capabilities.

Political Friction

Recent political factors, however, have soured somewhat the UK's relations with the UAE and Saudi Arabia. Saudi frustration at Britain's 'meddling' into its internal affairs boiled over in mid-October after a British parliamentary committee announced an inquiry into the UK's relationship with Saudi Arabia over concerns about the latter's human rights record. The Saudi ambassador to the UK announced that he was 'insulted' by Britain's antics and claimed that Saudi Arabia would consider re-evaluating its relations with the UK.

Britain has not been flavour of the month with the UAE either. A recent article by a former director of the UAE's underground al-Islah (Reform) movement in Britain's Guardian newspaper caused diplomatic raucous between the two countries. The boldly titled 'The UAE's descent into oppression' comment piece hit a raw nerve; not only for its strong anti-UAE government content but also for the international publicity that it garnered for the banned movement. Accused of being a front for the Egyptian Brotherhood, dozens of al-Islah members have been arrested and jailed recently. Such was the extent of Emirati anger that the British Embassy in Abu Dhabi was forced into defending the freedom of the press in the UK and denying that the British government had any control over what papers there could publish. Business ties appeared to have suffered as a consequence of souring political relations: according to industry sources, the British oil company, BP, was sidelined from bidding to run UAE oil fields partly as a result of 'tensions' with British authorities.

The rise of post-revolutionary Islamist movements across the Middle East has unnerved most Gulf monarchies. Barring Qatar - which has promoted their political elevation and remains their main sovereign backer - almost all GCC rulers have been incensed by the rise the Muslim Brotherhood, in particular. Senior Emirati officials have been the most vociferous in their condemnation of the Brotherhood, and by extension, Britain's (and other Western governments') acceptance of these movements. The UAE Foreign Minister, Sheikh Abdullah al-Nahyan, accused the Brotherhood in October of seeking to overthrow Gulf monarchies. A GCC heads-of-state summit in Bahrain in December will debate the 'threat' posed by the Muslim Brotherhood to GCC states at the request of a GCC member state, the English-language daily, Kuwait Times, reported on 31 October .

Strong Export Potential

Privately, Mr Cameron will have assured his hosts of Britain's unwavering support for the UAE's and Saudi Arabia's leaders. A personal visit from the Prime Minister will have gone a long way towards mollifying recently tense political relations. Economic and defence imperatives will naturally dictate the course of Britain's relationship with Gulf states. As security concerns multiply across the region and Gulf rulers seek to strengthen their defence capabilities, civilian and military exports from the UK will continue to find a burgeoning market in the Gulf in which to do business.


Mohammed Shakeel is a senior economist who writes on Middle East affairs.

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