On my first official visit to the United Arab Emirates this week as Britain's Defence Secretary, I look forward to deepening and strengthening relations between our two countries. The last Conservative government in Britain strengthened the relationship between us with the Defence Cooperation Accord of 1996, which set arrangements for our shared security and defence interests, one of Britain's largest defence commitments outside of Nato.
The current UK coalition government has committed itself to a process of reinvigorating that relationship and building upon it. My visit today is part of a determined effort to deepen and strengthen our ties.
Our two nations have many strategic interests that coincide - from commerce to regional security and from trade to diplomacy. The UAE is a trusted friend and a strong partner of the UK, with our countries working together in all of these areas, but first and foremost in diplomacy and security.
The UAE and the UK, as seafaring nations, both rely on free passage of trade to grow and maintain our economies. As major communications and logistics hubs, we both depend on unhindered freedom of movement in international waters.
In particular, the ability to sail safely in the waters around the UAE is crucial and the UK has been committed to helping to preserve peace in the region with a continuous Royal Navy presence in the Gulf since the 1980s. We will maintain that presence in the Gulf to keep sea lanes open and to provide support to our allies such as the UAE. HMS Daring, one of our newest and most formidable Type 45 destroyers, is currently on patrol along with a number of other Royal Navy vessels, including minesweepers.
The threats, of course, are not only close to home. Both nations are engaged in protecting shipping off the Horn of Africa to tackle the scourge of piracy and we worked together in the lead-up to the London Conference on Somalia last month. We are strong supporters of the conference on counter-piracy due to be held in UAE in June. We have to tackle this global challenge together.
Alongside the strategic and diplomatic ties, the trade and investment between our two countries are at the heart of the relationship and the figures speak for themselves: 100,000 British citizens live here; another million visit every year and over 4,000 British businesses operate in the UAE. Our two governments have committed to an ambitious target to increase bilateral trade to Dh69 billion by 2015 and we are well on our way to achieving that goal.
The UK's defence industry is strong and will play a part in this growing commercial partnership. In 2010, the UK was the second largest global defence exporter, capturing 22 per cent of the global market. British industry is a world leader in the design and construction of modern military shipping, new radar and air-defence systems, and vital support equipment such as helicopter handling systems. And the supply chain for the UK defence industry is becoming more globally integrated.
Our defence interests are ever more closely aligned as we face threats from across the region. Many senior UAE figures are former students at prestigious British military academies such as Sandhurst, Cranwell and Shrivenham, and our mutual understanding in the area of defence is stronger now than it has ever been.
Our militaries are working together in Afghanistan as part of the 49-nation International Security and Assistance Force to ensure that Afghans can maintain their security so that their country will never again become a safe haven for terrorists. Shortly before arriving in the UAE, I visited some of our troops training ahead of their deployment to Afghanistan, and despite a tragic loss of six soldiers in a single incident last week, they are committed to supporting Afghans to develop their security apparatus.
We are resolute in our commitment to the job that needs to be done in Afghanistan and will stay the course. Despite the sacrifice our armed forces have made, we have not been tempted to cut and run.
And it is not just in Afghanistan that we are closely aligned. In Libya, the skill and expertise of Emirati pilots demonstrated that the UAE is a significant power that is willing to take on its international responsibilities and able to operate in coalition with its allies to secure regional stability. The UAE is also demonstrating leadership in the important role it is playing within the Arab League efforts to tackle the crisis in Syria.
We agree on the need for Iran to desist from its pursuit of nuclear weapons. I hope that following the recent decision to resume talks by countries of the E3+3 (UK, US, France, Germany, Russia and China), Iran will chose a different path and use this opportunity to show the world that it wants a peaceful, negotiated solution to the nuclear issue. The onus is on Iran to convince the world that its nuclear programme is entirely peaceful and I am grateful for the UAE's steadfast support in this crucial matter.
Whether it be promoting and protecting trade, working alongside each other in Afghanistan and Libya, or leading diplomatic initiatives, our two countries are strong and reliable strategic partners. The UAE and the UK will continue to work closely on our shared interests and I look forward today to discussing how we will develop and enhance that cooperation over the coming months and years.
Philip Hammond is the UK Defence Secretary