LONDON: ORLANDO CROWCROFT
Published — Tuesday 11 December 2012
Last update 11 December 2012 5:21 am
British Prime Minister David Cameron’s recent trip to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates was replete with the traditional photo opportunities and mutual defense and security proclamations, but it was far more than a courtesy call on Britain’s long-time Gulf allies. Cameron was clear in the runup to his Gulf trip that he had come to tout for investment in British-made fighter jets, saying openly that security for both Saudi Arabia and the UAE was “important for our security” while potential deals involving dozens of BAE System’s Typhoon fighter jets was “vital for British jobs.”
But a month on, with no high-profile announcements on actual deals forthcoming, the question remains of how Cameron’s second trip to the Gulf as prime minister should be seen in the paradigm of the new Middle East. Moreover, what role the UK sees Saudi Arabia and the UAE playing in its economic and political future.
“The UK has seen the Gulf region as a long-term strategic ally for decades, but the recent Conservative government appears to have grasped the importance of the Gulf more than its predecessors,” said David Jones, head of RUSI Qatar. “There has been a discernible escalation of British interest in and support of Gulf states since William Hague became Foreign Secretary. (Cameron’s) trip is the latest manifestation of this increased support.” The increased support on a diplomatic levels has not been matched in the public perception in the UK, where the Arab Spring has prompted a new awareness of the region and more searching questions about Britain’s relationship with the GCC states.
The UAE was particularly upset after the Guardian published a critical editorial written by a former director of the country’s Al Islah movement, while Riyadh has been angered by a British parliamentary committee inquiry into the UK’s relationship with Saudi Arabia. Cameron is well aware that such spats have the potential to cost the UK dearly. British exports to the GCC were worth an estimated £17 billion in 2011 — with arms deals a major component. “The UK’s calls for reform in support of the Arab Spring, while modulated to avoid a clash with its conservative Gulf partners, have nevertheless created tensions,” said Christopher S. Chivvis, senior political scientist at RAND.
“For economic and security reasons, however, the UK cannot afford an open break with its Gulf partners ... It needs to ensure it has access to oil development opportunities and defense markets.
Cameron also wants the Gulf’s support over Syria, Chivvis said, where the British leader is hoping that the international community can play a bigger role. On the way back from the Gulf, Cameron stopped off at refugee camps on the Jordanian border, seeking to make more public his backing for an end to the civil war and the replacement of Bashar Assad.
“It does appear that Britain and other NATO allies are moving closer to supporting some form of military intervention in Syria, so it is almost certain that coordinating the regional and international approaches to the Syrian crisis was one objective of the trip,” Chivvis said.
RUSI’s Jones added that “part of the rationale for the trip was doubtless to discuss Syria,” although he is more skeptical as to whether Britain or its allies will act there: “While the international community is eager to do something actually doing something is very different,” he said. It remains true that over the last four weeks there has been little action either on business or political fronts. Syria’s war continues with no new initiatives or action proposed by Britain or anybody else. Jones urges patience.
“As a direct result of the latest trip we are yet to see any significant deals made. However, things do not necessarily happen that quickly. It is a part of a longer-term policy of boosting UK support in the region. I am sure that we will see some output in the coming months from the visit particularly in Oman, the UAE, and KSA,” he said.