How Brexit will affect British ties with the UAE
Investment, political and cultural ties look set to deepen as British policymakers re-orientate from reliance on Europe
Brexit has been a divisive force in British life for more than two years, but if there is one element of common ground between the Remain and Leave factions it is that London’s long relationship with the Gulf will emerge reinvigorated.
Arab ambassadors based in London have spoken of the opportunity for a trade deal with the Gulf Co-operation Council. A deeper investment relationship appears possible. Political and cultural ties look set to deepen as British policymakers re-orientate from a reliance on European integration.
Sulaiman Al Mazroui, the UAE ambassador to the UK, told The National that the UAE would entrench its role as a global hub for Britain in the wake of the country’s departure on March 29.
“Whether the UK is in or out of the EU the relationship will always be strong, cordial and fruitful – it can only grow stronger and stronger,” the ambassador, who arrived at the Court of St James in 2016 after a stint as the UAE representative to the EU in Brussels. “Brexit is an internal matter for the UK but outside the EU there is an opportunity to strike a deal for a free trade agreement, though this is dependent on our position in the GCC as a whole.”
Mr Mazroui points out that the UAE is in the top handful of Britain’s trading partners, alongside the EU, and as such the relationship is well placed to withstand developments in the weeks ahead.
“The UK is our strong partner and the UAE is number three, four outside the EU, in terms of trade and exports. The UAE is a hub and considers its market as two billion people with the best of infrastructure for exporting goods. I don’t think they will find a better destination for tourism or for the British people living in the region.
“These elements are vital in our relationship with the UK.”
British ministers have used the concept of Global Britain as the post-Brexit platform for overhauling foreign policy. Jeremy Hunt, the foreign secretary, is in the region on a visit that both combines a specific mission to promote peace negotiations in Yemen and wider efforts to strengthen ties with Saudi Arabia, Oman and UAE.
Speaking to parliamentarians after taking up his role last year, Mr Hunt stressed the importance of the strategic relationships Britain enjoys with the Gulf countries. He said that it was important to maintain all Britain’s enduring ties.
“As a country with global reach, we have relationships with all shapes and sizes of countries,” he said. “If we are going to have a positive role in the Middle East, as we aspire to, we have to have partnerships with many different countries."
Recent visits to the region have included trips by Liam Fox, the international trade secretary, and Gavin Williamson, the defence secretary. Mr Williamson has spoken of how Brexit will see the British security presence grow around the world, particular in the vibrant Pacific and Indian Ocean regions where historic links are strongest. In a February speech he spoke of the importance of British military facilities at Dubai's Al Minhad airbase, as well as permanent bases in Bahrain and Oman.
There are deep historical ties between the UK and the families governing the seven emirates, but the nature of the relationship has changed over the years. The economic power that came with the arrival of oil money has allowed the UAE's leaders to build new military and economic relationships
Neil Quilliam, senior fellow at Chatham House
“Britain has its greatest opportunity in 50 years to redefine our role,” he said. “As we leave the European Union. And, the world changing so rapidly it is up to us to seize the opportunities that Brexit brings. We will build new alliances, rekindle old ones and most importantly make it clear that we are the country that will act when required. We should be the nation that people turn to when the world needs leadership.”
The relation with Saudi Arabia has been most in the spotlight in recent months and the government has provided an overarching defence of its close ties with Riyadh.
“We have a relationship with Saudi Arabia that is complex and many-layered. It certainly has a security and intelligence element, which has led to the saving of a number of British lives over recent years, so that is an important factor in all this,” Alistair Burt, the Middle East minister told MPs last year. “It is not leverage; it is very much a partnership. As was seen in the visit of the Crown Prince, this relationship goes across the board, well beyond defence and security issues, to trade, culture and a variety of things, bearing in mind the changes coming over Saudi Arabia.”
David Jones, a Conservative MP who chairs an all-parliamentary the group on the UAE, has also spoken regularly of Brexit as a new outlook for London. “Brexit provides the United Kingdom with a unique opportunity to renew ties with the wider international community,” he said. “In my view, for too long the UK has been constrained in its outlook by the European Union.”
David Wearing, an expert in Gulf politics, points out that trade with the Gulf has been in surplus for Britain for decades. This has seen British business take a leading role in local markets. “The states have been trying to build their economies, to develop infrastructure and build-up their education systems. British exporters have trying to help them do these things – there is all kinds of goods and services that have been provided,” he said.
One aspect of this is that the sophisticated British military equipment industry has thrived on local contacts, a factor that enabled London to retain a global military role. “One of the main strategic priorities of the British state in the context of being usurped by America and cope with loss empire has been to be a global military power,” Mr Wearing told a Chatham House interviewer last month. “To have an arms industry can be costly unless your exporting.”
It means that Britain’s relationship with the regional states is hard-wired into international policy. “This is a relationship that has developed over 200 years,” he added.
Neil Quilliam, a senior fellow at Chatham House, wrote late last year that Britain’s ties with the UAE were shifting as international relationships develop, especially with the rise of the dynamic Asian economies, particularly China, as well as in recognition of Russia’s evolving global role. “There are deep historical ties between the UK and the families governing the seven emirates, but the nature of the relationship has changed over the years. The economic power that came with the arrival of oil money has allowed the UAE's leaders to build new military and economic relationships,” according to Mr Quilliam.
For the British, the friendship with the UAE has been bedrock of its regional presence for decades. “Indeed, there is a lot at stake,” he added. “The UAE is the UK's largest export market in the Middle East and its fourth largest export market outside the EU. The UK exported £9.8 billion of goods and services in 2016, which marked a 37 per cent increase from 2009.”
Overall the prospect of a Brexit that would disrupt trade with Europe and harm Britain’s economic outlook would have global repercussions for the country’s brand and its international influence. John Sawers, a former head of MI6, warned that a loss of prestige comparable to that suffered in the tumultuous 1970s was on the cards.
“We can see the trend of the coming years and we do not want to go through a repeat of the 1970s where the UK went progressively downhill compared to our national partners,” he said. “We will need to turn it around. I am not sure how we are going to do it.
“We have to recognise a pretty stark reality faces us at the end of this process, and we have to rebuild from that."
Updated: March 4, 2019 08:47 AM