Gordon Brown is not noted for his wisecracking style and infectious bonhomie, but even the notoriously dour British Prime Minister must have a hint of a smile on his face as he returns to Downing Street after his visit to the Gulf. Perhaps the only western leader to emerge from the global financial calamity with any vestige of credit, Mr Brown was swift to recognise that Gulf sovereign wealth funds, far from deserving the suspicion bordering on paranoia with which they have been viewed in too many countries, in fact hold the key to restoring confidence in world markets and banking systems. He has spent the past four days putting that belief into action.
The British business minister, Lord Mandelson, is correct in his observation that Mr Brown's discussions with Gulf leaders are "a process, not an event": the Prime Minister is unlikely to be flying back to London with a large cheque in his pocket to deposit with the IMF. But nor will he be empty handed. Qatar is to invest £250 million (Dh1.5 billion) in low-carbon energy technology, most of it in the UK, and yesterday in Abu Dhabi Mr Brown signed a memorandum of understanding with Masdar on the same issue.
What is important is what happens next. Again showing a foresight that other western leaders would do well to emulate, Mr Brown has made clear his belief that when international institutions are reformed, as they must be, the Gulf states should play a much more influential role in those institutions: there must be, in other words, seats at the table. The first test of that commitment will come this month at the G20 summit in Washington, the first formal meeting of world leaders to address the international financial regulatory system since the current debacle began, and at which Saudi Arabia's voice must be heard.
During Mr Brown's 10 years as Chancellor of the Exchequer, Britain's finance minister, the quality with which he was most associated, and the word he used most often to describe what guided his policies, was prudence. Equally, it is prudence that has long determined the investment criteria of the Gulf sovereign wealth funds, with long-term value taking precedence over short-term gain. When global financial institutions are reshaped to deal with the new global financial realities, it is prudence that must take centre stage.