x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Queen Elizabeth mounts Gulf charm offensive

The National's foreign correspondent, David Sapsted, explains how Queen Elizabeth's impending visit to the Gulf exemplifies Britain's shifting priorities.

Queen Elizabeth's impending visit will represent far more than an overdue courtesy call by a monarch whose nation has deep historical ties to the UAE.
Queen Elizabeth's impending visit will represent far more than an overdue courtesy call by a monarch whose nation has deep historical ties to the UAE.

LONDON // The arrival of Queen Elizabeth II in Abu Dhabi on Wednesday will represent much more than simply an overdue courtesy call by a monarch whose nation has deep historical ties to the UAE.

It will mark the latest instalment of a Gulf charm offensive that has been mounted with no small amount of vigour since the UK's coalition government came to power in May with the avowed intention of strengthening links with GCC nations.

Expressing his "delight" at the Queen's visit and revealing that he would be following her to the UAE early in the New Year, the British prime minister, David Cameron, said last week: "We are rebuilding our relationships with countries in the Gulf. They feel strong links with Britain but have also felt sidelined in recent years."

It is no coincidence that, within weeks of the current Conservative-Liberal Democrat government taking over that the royal visit to the UAE, postponed from a year ago, was announced by Buckingham Palace.

No coincidence either that the first person to be received by the queen on a state visit since the election was the emir of Qatar, who was afforded the rare privilege of staying with the royal family at Windsor Castle, rather than at Buckingham Palace.

The British foreign secretary, William Hague, spelt out the new government's determination to elevate Britain's relations with the Gulf states when he addressed Foreign Office staff just days after taking office and announced the establishment of a UK-UAE task force.

"We are enthusiastic about strengthening relations across the Gulf and serious about realising results on issues that are of mutual importance, from increasing trade and investment, to furthering research and development of future energy sources," Mr Hague said in a foreign office statement last month.

"This is what we are starting to see, and I look forward to more progress in the coming months and years."

Details of the Queen's and Duke of Edinburgh's itineraries are not being announced until tomorrow, but Dominic Jermey, UK ambassador to the UAE and, until recently, managing director of the government's UK Trade and Investment division, describes the two-day visit as "a celebration of strength of the historic relations between the two countries".

"The UAE and Britain have links dating back many hundreds of years," he says. "The royal couple will meet President His Highness Sheikh Khalifa Bin Zayed al Nahyan. As we strengthen our friendship for the future, this visit celebrates the depth and breadth of those ties. She will also be interacting with leaders from Muslim faith.

"Such top-level visits are also a continuing process. Within weeks of taking over as head of the coalition government, Prime Minister David Cameron visited the UAE, indicating that the friendship is based on a unique, shared history and common interests."

The current government, however, fears that those common interests were too often ignored during the 13 years that the previous Labour government was in power.

Alan Duncan, the British minister for international development, detailed those concerns last month when he addressed a London conference on trade with Oman, which the Queen will also be visiting.

He pointed out that, last year, the Gulf was the UK's seventh largest export market, with sales of goods and services worth around £14 billion (Dh81.2bn), putting the region on a par with the total UK exports to India and China combined.

"But it concerns me that the UK appears to be losing market share, both to established competition, such as the USA, France and Germany, and to emerging markets like India, China and Korea," he said.

Ian Black, Middle East editor of The Guardian, wrote recently: "Expanding UK business and political ties with the Gulf states has been set as a priority by the coalition government, with Foreign Secretary William Hague taking the ministerial lead. 'We want the UK to be the Gulf's commercial partner of choice' is Whitehall's new mantra."

The Queen, of course, will not indulge in any such coarse commercial politicking during her trip.

"But she is a great ambassador for Britain," a senior diplomatic source in London said.

"She is so good with people, from the highest to the lowest in society. It might be part of a UK charm offensive in the Gulf, but she really seems to relish the trips even at her age [84] and meeting people from different cultures. As an added bonus, expatriate Brits always get something of a boost from a royal visit."

There are personal ties involved, too. Prince Andrew, the Queen's second eldest son, has been a close friend of Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces, since their days together at Gordonstoun School in Scotland.

Britain's royals also have a long friendship with Sultan Qaboos bin Said of Oman. One week ago, Prince William, the monarch's eldest grandson and second in line to the throne, paid a private visit to Muscat on his way back from Afghanistan and, during the Queen's trip to Oman, she will join in celebrations to mark the Sultan's 40-year rule.

Previously, the royal couple were in the Gulf in 1979, when a supersonic Concorde flew them into Kuwait where they boarded the royal yacht Britannia, complete with Royal Navy escort, for a tour that took in Kuwait, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the UAE and Oman.

Concorde and the royal yacht have gone the way of the dodo. But the queen's mission to win over hearts and minds continues apace after almost 60 years on the throne.