Cast your mind back, if you will, to around fourteen months ago — just prior to the general election in the UK. In April 2010, Arabian Business interviewed the two candidates most likely to become British foreign secretary, Labour’s David Miliband and the Conservatives’ William Hague. Their answers as to what British expatriates in the Gulf could expect from a new government were very different; Miliband stressed - somewhat irrelevantly - how important that Europe was to British interests, while Hague pointed out that many Gulf countries had “complained to various degrees about a lack of support and cooperation from Britain” and how a Conservative government would strive to put that right.
As we all now know, the Tories were victorious in the May election last year, and Hague is now foreign secretary. But has he held true to his word? Well, in terms of high-level visits to the Gulf, there seems to have been an endlessly revolving door of British officials making their way to the UAE, in particular. Just days after taking up residence in 10 Downing Street, Prime Minister David Cameron made the trip to the UAE as one of his first international visits, meeting President and Ruler of Abu Dhabi HH Sheikh Khalifa Bin Zayed, as well as Crown Prince HH Sheikh Mohammed Bin Zayed and Prime Minister and Ruler of Dubai HH Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid. In November last year, Queen Elizabeth also journeyed to the country she last visited in 1979 — only six years after the UAE declared independence from the UK.
Behind the glitz and the photographs, the underlying agenda has clearly been one of closer business ties; in the UAE, in particular, there is a feeling that British business interests have lost out to extensive lobbying from other European countries and the US — particularly on the defence side.
Against that backdrop, the UK sent just the latest in a series of ministerial expeditions to the region last week, led by Lord David Howell, who is the minister of charge of Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO) activities in the House of Lords, the second chamber of the UK parliament. Howell is in no doubt as to the importance of the Gulf in a world where the economic balance is shifting from west to east.
“We needed to make a vigorous effort to refresh and develop our outside and non-European, non-OECD relations. So that’s why you have seen a lot more ministers, and you’ll see a lot more in the future,” he says. “If you add the GCC up — I’m not saying its unified on everything — but if you add it up it’s a very substantial market, with very rapidly rising consumption demands and the British would be crazy not to be here. Indeed we’ve got to be here for our own prosperity, we’ve got to market here and we’ve got to draw capital from here and invest it in our own country where we need tens and hundreds of billions even to refresh our own infrastructure, particularly in the energy sector.”
Of Britain’s relationship with the UAE, specifically, Howell cites one of the officials he has met during the tour — which included Minister of Foreign Trade Sheikha Lubna Al Qasimi, Minister of Economy Sultan Saeed Al Mansoori, and Mubadala CEO Khaldoon Al Mubarak — as saying that “it’s the best it’s ever been”.
“We’re dealing with a very fluid situation in the Middle East, and day-to-day you get different assessments of what’s happening in Libya, Syria, Yemen and so on,” he says. “We’re steering the boat together as we go through these storms. On the political front, a particular concern of UK foreign policy, the UAE is absolutely central to the developments in the region and to the role of the GCC generally.”
But the message is very different when it comes to Bahrain, a country with which Britain retains close political and military ties. The Gulf state has been wracked with protest during the course of this year.
“I think, basically, we view a settled Bahrain in the camp of those countries with which we want to be friends,” says Howell. “But we can’t just condone and tick the box over evidence of direct violence against protesting citizens — that’s something that I’m afraid we can’t agree to.”
In fact, Bahrain is somewhat conspicuously not on the list of five regional countries that Howell’s whistle-stop tour is including. Perhaps that’s not surprising; at the time of his visit, the Bahraini government was lifting its state of emergency — with tanks and soldiers pulling back from the centre of Manama — and was anticipating further unrest in its wake. “What has gone on is not very attractive,” Howell adds, with classic English understatement. “We don’t want to see anything more develop in that direction. We have said again and again and again that we want to see dialogue between the Bahraini government and the protestors. And that if there are arguments to be had out, let them be had out, but in a peaceful way.”
Howell’s assessment of Bahrain runs parallel with what he describes as British “concern” about how the pattern of the Arab Spring has run during the course of this year. In meetings with Saudi officials — including assistant energy minister Prince Abdulaziz and Riyadh governor Prince Salman — Howell admits that the UK doesn’t have “exactly the same perspective on everything” but is keen to accentuate the positives.
“We do want to see regimes and patterns of government reform steadily towards greater freedoms,” he says. “We do want to see this done in ways that are peaceful and without bloodshed and violence. I’m not saying that there’s any disagreement with Saudi Arabia on that — there isn’t at all — but there may be certain disagreements on the pace of reform. That’s about all — on the whole relations are pretty good, but pace of reform, it’s difficult, and our assessments of what’s going right and what’s going wrong and how regimes should develop is probably slightly different, but not very different.”