ABU DHABI // Britain's relationship with the UAE, according to Alistair Burt, is like a modern twist on a classic car. "This is like Aston Martin bringing out a new make," said Mr Burt, the UK's Middle East minister. "It's already a great car, but you can always make it even better. "That's what we're doing with the relationship. It goes right across the board. It's defence, it's security, it's trade, it's shared foreign policy objectives.
"We look at the regional issues facing the UAE and ask: what are our combined objectives here?" The UK-UAE task force is the vehicle for the building of this relationship, but the announcements following its inaugural meeting in July focused mostly on the goal of boosting trade by 60 per cent, from £7.5bn (Dh41bn) a year to £12bn (Dh65bn) by 2015. When it was noted that a deepening of relations would mean more than just economics, Mr Burt was quick to agree. "It has broadened away from solely a trade relationship."
The state of that trade relationship, however, is a concern for the UK. When David Cameron, Britain's prime minister announced the task force in July, he said that "a decade ago, we had eight per cent of [the UAE's] market, the same as China. Today, 10 years later, we have four per cent, and China has 16 per cent." That could perhaps explain why Mr Cameron made the UAE the first Gulf state he visited as prime minister.
Mr Burt, however, believes that too much should not be read into the choice. "It's invidious to pick out 'why go somewhere first?'" While Saudi Arabia is often thought to be the centre of political and economic power in the Gulf, Mr Burt said ties with that country were already strong. "What we do with each country is, I suppose, unique. We are not replicating the UK-UAE task force in every single case.
"The relationship is broadening and deepening. It's going across trade, defence, common foreign policy, security, culture, education. That's what makes this different." When asked what foreign policy objectives he thought the nations shared, Mr Burt first highlighted Afghanistan. "The UAE has committed its own forces to Afghanistan." On the likely shape of bilateral co-operation between UAE and UK in Afghanistan, he said: "We are working with a number of different nations in these areas. We don't expect nations to leave Afghanistan in 2015 and turn off the lights - it's a long term continuing relationship."
On Iran, Mr Burt argued that the country's regional neighbours had little choice but to enforce sanctions, despite the potential to destabilise the region. "If you leave Iran entirely on its own, I'm afraid that all our evidence suggests that the region will be more unstable, and more unstable in a relatively short timeframe," he said. The minister said that the end result of the sanctions would justify any bumps along the road. "The message is getting through to Iran."
Mr Burt saw the willingness of the UAE to participate as a sign of the nation's concern about Iran's intentions. "I think you would take it as a measure of the concern that is felt in the region about Iran, that the UAE feels it is necessary to do this, and that it is joining whole-heartedly in the effort - not to make life worse, but to make life better." He said a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was "also crucial", calling it "a corner stone of so many of the other issues".
However, the task force had not discussed the Arab Peace Initiative, the comprehensive peace agreement first put forward by Saudi Arabia and Jordan in 2002 and supported by the Arab League. As direct talks continued between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, Mr Burt suggested the region should focus on supporting, rather than complicating, those talks. "It's very important that the two parties involved, without pre-conditions from others, get [to an agreement]. What the issues will be after that? Well, let's wait and see."