x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

British royals pull out all stops for Sheikh Khalifa's visit

Sheikh Khalifa state visit: Royals will ensure the visiting President, Sheikh Khalifa, realises the importance to the UK of its relationship - and trade - with the UAE.

The Household Cavalry walks the route past Windsor Castle of President Khalifa's state carriage procession with The Queen and The Duke of Edinburgh today. Stephen Lock for The National
The Household Cavalry walks the route past Windsor Castle of President Khalifa's state carriage procession with The Queen and The Duke of Edinburgh today. Stephen Lock for The National

It will have all the pomp and circumstance that are accorded to such occasions, including a ceremonial welcome from Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip, a state carriage procession and a guard of honour at Windsor Castle.

Today, Sheikh Khalifa, the President, begins a two-day state visit to Britain that is more than a reflection of the close family friendship between the two heads of state.

He will officially start his visit with a formal welcome by the Queen and Prince Philip, the duke of Edinburgh, before a carriage ride to Windsor Castle.

There, Sheikh Khalifa will inspect a guard of honour, followed by a state lunch and speeches.

Tomorrow, he will hold talks with the British prime minister David Cameron at 10 Downing Street and then make the short journey to Westminster Abbey for the laying of a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior, which honours Britain's war dead.

The visit will conclude over tea with Prince Charles at Clarence House, the prince of Wales's official London residence.

These two days will be an important occasion to improve a relationship both sides describe as strong and vital, and one that has grown rapidly since the state visit by the founding President Sheikh Zayed in 1989.

Security, defence and trade relations are especially close.

The UAE and UK hold similar outlooks on regional stability, where the uprisings of the Arab Spring continue to reverberate. Both are members of the "Friends of Syria" and "Friends of Yemen" groups, and share concerns about the nuclear ambitions of Iran. Both countries still have troops in Afghanistan.

The second-largest arms exporter in the world after the United States, Britain is also keen to increase defence sales to the UAE, including the British-made Typhoon fighter jets.

Defence is a key area in British attempts to expand its presence in the area, said Neil Partrick, an Arabian Gulf specialist and visiting fellow with the Royal United Service Institute.

"There have been close defence and security arrangements since the UAE was founded," Dr Partrick said. "But there are always areas that can be improved and there are mutual concerns."

So important are those relations viewed in Britain that the Royal United Services Institute yesterday released a paper suggesting the UK should reverse its "East of Suez" policy that saw it draw back its military presence in Asia and the Arabian Gulf in 1971, as the sun set on the British Empire.

The British military was considering rebuilding a "smart" military presence in Arabian Gulf countries, including in the UAE, to bolster regional stability, the think tank said.

But no less important is a trade relationship on track to be worth £12 billion (Dh68.28bn) by 2015.

The UAE has Dh29.38bn invested in the UK, while the Emirates is the UK's 13th most important export market, up three places on 2011.

And although in January there was a decrease in UK exports to the UAE, there was an increase in UAE exports to the UK. Overall bilateral trade improved by 7 per cent in that period.

More than 100,000 Britons live, work and study in the UAE, and the UK has become an increasingly important destination for Emirati students and business professionals, attracted by one of the more liberal investment climates in Europe.

London also remains a popular holiday destination, although the UAE is keen to see the UK agree to a reciprocal visa agreement.

As it stands, Britons - one million of whom visited the UAE last year - need nothing more than a stamp at the airport. Emiratis still have to apply for a visa.

Such agreement, as well as a similar arrangement with the EU's Schengen countries, is getting nearer, although it is not clear if anything will be announced on this visit.

Both countries will be especially keen to enhance trade relations - arguably the most important aspect of the bilateral relationship - during the visit, said Jamie Ingram of IHS Jane's, a group of publications focused on defence and intelligence matters, based in London.

Mr Ingram described the visit as significant, not least because it comes less than three years after Queen Elizabeth made her second state visit to the UAE.

In the time between, strain was put on relations between Britain and some Arabian Gulf countries after British support for popular protests in the region, notably Egypt in 2011, coupled with a more ambiguous British position on Bahrain's unrest.

But the impact has not been as great on UK-UAE relations as with other countries, said Mr Ingram.

And the quick exchange of state visits is evidence that relations have warmed again, he said, in part because of a concerted effort by Mr Cameron.

"David Cameron has listened to industry figures who were concerned by the lack of government support they received in attempting to break into the Gulf markets," said Mr Ingram.

The countries also established the UK-UAE Taskforce in 2010 that, according to Britain's foreign and commonwealth office, has formed a "cornerstone" of the relationship and seen relations go from "strength to strength".

okarmi@thenational.ae

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