x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

President's UK visit awakens an old alliance, made new

The state visit by President Khalifa to Britain was not just empty ceremony but a genuine change in atmosphere. That will be beneficial to both the UAE and the UK.

State visits to Britain - for all the pomp and ceremony of red-jacketed guardsmen and bearskin hats - often fail to make much impression on the British media. This sometimes leads to the august visitor taking offence and wondering if this is a calculated insult. It is not meant as an insult: we have seen the ceremonies many times before.

Nothing like that happened with the state visit of President Sheikh Khalifa to Britain. It generated a lot of media coverage, and some genuine analysis of Britain's relations with the UAE and the rest of the Gulf countries.

There are several reasons for this, but a key one is that the visit was not just empty ceremony but highlighted a genuine change in atmosphere. The "new Labour" governments of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown paid little heed to the Gulf states, preferring, as part of a conscious "modernising" policy, to focus on China and other so-called rising powers.

Mr Brown's lack of interest in visiting the UAE (except cap in hand when he took charge of the response to the global financial crisis) did not pass unnoticed. A UK-UAE defence cooperation agreement signed in 1996 just before Mr Blair took office was allowed to become a dead letter.

The current prime minister, David Cameron, set about reviving relations with old friends. There is now a broad perspective of defence cooperation, involving the use of the Al Minhad Air Base in Dubai by the British air force, the potential purchase by the UAE of 60 Typhoon jets made by the Eurofighter consortium, and training for British forces in the UAE and Oman. All this makes sense for Britain: 100,000 Britons live in the UAE, while it is dependent on Qatar for 85 per cent of its liquefied natural gas.

As General Sir David Richards, the chief of the defence staff, said last year - to some raised eyebrows from Britain's European defence partners: "Nowhere is more important to us than our friends in the Middle East and Gulf."

From the UAE's perspective, closer relations with European partners - France has had a naval base in Abu Dhabi since 2009 - make sense.

The Obama administration's foreign policy strategy has been to focus its efforts on China, and away from the battlefields of the Middle East, where the former US president, George W Bush, shed so much blood. This so-called "pivot" to the Asia-Pacific region, coupled with the US's decreased need for oil from the Gulf, has raised fears that Washington will reduce its commitment to its Gulf allies.

But as much as Washington might talk about pivoting elsewhere, the chances of it happening - given rising tensions with Iran - seem vanishingly small.

Britain's growing defence cooperation with the UAE went largely unnoticed until the military think tank, the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), highlighted it in a provocatively titled paper, A Return to East of Suez? The title refers to the decision by cash-strapped Britain in the 1960s to close its military bases east of Suez, including Aden, Malaysia, Singapore and the Maldives, effectively abandoning the remnants of its eastern empire.

The idea that Britain, even more cash-strapped now following the financial crisis, should be returning to its old role is intriguing - but the question mark in the title says it all. In fact Britain never really left the region, helping Oman defeat the Dhofar Rebellion in the 1970s and patrolling Gulf waters during the Iran-Iraq war.

Professor Michael Clarke, director-general of the RUSI think tank, says there is no question of "imperial overhang". What Britain is doing in the Gulf is not a military deployment, more a "smart presence" involving agreements, training facilities and stationing equipment to allow British forces more easily to move in and out of the Gulf and train here.

This is not yet a policy, certainly not a declared one. Rather, the paper concludes, it is an attempt to bring together a range of ad hoc engagements - Britain is using Al Minhad to supply its forces in Afghanistan and next year will need it to withdraw them - into some form of coherent strategy.

In this light should be seen the agreement signed in London on Wednesday between Masdar, the clean energy company, and Britain's Green Investment Bank. Likewise Britain's encouragement of other forms of UAE and Qatari investment.

No one should imagine that Britain will once again be the gendarme of the Gulf. Compared with the enormous might of the US armed forces, the British effort can never be more than a welcome token of support.

The second reason for press coverage was more parochial - the case of three Londoners sentenced to four years in jail in Dubai for possessing a cannabis substitute. The men's families claim that they were assaulted while in police custody and had to sign a statement which they did not understand, so Mr Cameron came under heavy media pressure to raise the issue with Sheikh Khalifa.

In Britain a sentence of four years in jail for a first offence is seen as harsh. But when BBC radio questioned British expatriates in Dubai, the reporter found little sympathy. "They should have expected what they got" and "stay away from things that get you into trouble" were some of the comments. The three men are appealing their sentences.

The drugs case is a tiny part of a broader debate: where is the moral high ground in the Arab countries these days? There is no certainty in the results of the Arab revolutions. Egypt is practically ungoverned and plunging into bankruptcy; Syria is torn apart by civil war; Iraq, for all its adherence to holding elections, is almost ungovernable.

Faced with these huge issues which are way beyond Britain's ability to resolve - and seemingly beyond America's - the British government has opted to stick with the countries it knew of old. With enough political will, it should turn out to be beneficial to both sides.



On Twitter: @aphilps