x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Tories would focus on ties with region

Deepening the UK's relationship with the Gulf will be a foreign policy priority of the Conservative Party if it is voted into power next year, says William Hague.

William Hague, the shadow foreign secretary for the Conservative Party in the UK, speaks in Abu Dhabi yesterday.
William Hague, the shadow foreign secretary for the Conservative Party in the UK, speaks in Abu Dhabi yesterday.

ABU DHABI // Deepening the UK's relationship with the Gulf will be a foreign policy priority of the Conservative Party if it is voted into power next year, William Hague, the British shadow foreign secretary, said during a visit to the UAE yesterday. Mr Hague, who travelled to Abu Dhabi to meet Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed, the Foreign Minister, said he was trying to build relationships with key international figures to smooth the transition if, as expected, the Conservative Party wins the next general election.

"I've been calling for several years on Britain to embark on a long-term, cross-party effort to elevate the relationship with the Gulf countries," said Mr Hague, who flew in yesterday morning from Qatar. He said the relationship with the Gulf, already strong, needed to be deepened "in cultural terms, educational terms, diplomatically and militarily in some cases". Mr Hague discussed issues including Iran and the Middle East peace process with Sheikh Abdullah, with whom he has met several times in the past. He said the policy of a Conservative government towards the Middle East would not be "fundamentally" different from that of Labour.

"We are not looking for differences on Middle East policy - the British election will be decided overwhelmingly on domestic issues," said Mr Hague. "It's not about having differences between parties but to pursue the right policies. There's a lot of bipartisan consensus." He said he saw Gulf countries, including the UAE, as key to dealing with the "pressing problem" of a nuclear Iran. David Miliband, the British foreign secretary, visited the UAE in November 2008 to urge Gulf countries to take a stronger stance against Iran.

Mr Hague said he was "cautiously pessimistic" that the negotiations with Iran on the possibility of sending uranium overseas for enrichment would succeed, and if it did fail the international community would need a "much tougher approach". "In Europe we have been the strongest advocates of tougher sanctions on Iran if there is no positive response and in that scenario [the failure of current negotiations] we think there should be European financial sanctions on Iran, matching those of the United States, and a ban on oil and gas development by European countries in Iran," he said. "Clearly to have a serious impact a measure of support for that is needed from Russia and from China and the Gulf."

Iranian state-owned television reported yesterday that Tehran would accept the proposal with "very important changes", giving a formal response within two days, which many have seen as a stalling technique. Mr Hague said he would not rule out military action against Iran if sanctions failed. "While Iran possessing nuclear weapons would be a calamity for the region, military action against Iran could also be calamitous in many ways," he said.

Security in the Gulf is of great strategic importance to the UK because it secures 20 per cent of its gas supply from Qatar. In Afghanistan, where both British and UAE troops are risking their lives, Mr Hague said he was "committed to persisting" and would be "sympathetic" to a troop increase if so advised, as long as it accelerated the training of the Afghan army. He said the Tories were putting together a new strategy for the country based on "true counter-insurgency tactics" and "better governance," adding that he welcomed the second round of elections in Afghanistan but still hopes for the possibility of a unity government.

Despite the powerful Conservative Friends of Israel lobby within the party, and rising stars such as Michael Gove, known for his pro-Israel stance, Mr Hague said it would not hamper his ability to be tough on Israeli settlements. lmorris@thenational.ae