6th Nov, 2012 –
Recent weeks have been rocky ones for the relationship between Britain and the Gulf states, particularly with a group of British MPs announcing their intention to review ties with Saudi Arabia and Bahrain – an announcement which drew an unsurprisingly sharp response from Saudi Arabia. However, Prime Minister David Cameron’s visit shows clearly that he knows where Britain’s interests lie and that he understands the importance of close relations with the Arabian Gulf.
There is a very close historic relationship between the United Kingdom and the Gulf States. Many of these Gulf Kingdoms and Emirates owe their emergence as independent and sovereign states during the 20th century to British support and protection, preventing smaller states being swallowed by hostile regional powers. The fate of the three Emirati islands annexed by Iran and continuing Iranian claims that Bahrain is a 13th province of Iran show that such protection and support was not something symbolic and empty of practical meaning.
What those in the West who call for cutting ties with Saudi Arabia or cancelling trade deals with Bahrain fail to understand is that the nations of the Gulf Cooperation Council stand together. Foreign nations can’t cozy up to the monarchies of Qatar and Oman while waving fingers at the Kuwaitis or Saudis. As King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia and Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed of the UAE will have made very clear to visiting delegations: Don’t come to us looking for friendship and trade deals, while flirting with revolutionary militant groups in Manama.
An attack against one of us is an attack against us all. We are proud of our common Arab, Muslim and Arabian Gulf heritage. When civil order was on the point of collapse in Bahrain last year, it was our Gulf cousins who rallied round and assisted us in restoring order and creating the conditions for emerging from the political crisis. The Bahrain tourism industry is flourishing today, not because nervous Europeans are coming back, but because Saudi, Kuwaiti, Qatari and Emirati visitors have never stopped flocking to Bahrain and enjoying our relaxed and liberal cultural climate.
The governing systems of the various Gulf Monarchies and States differ greatly; ranging from an absolute monarchy in Saudi Arabia, to mixed Parliamentary and Constitutional systems with regular elections in Bahrain and Kuwait. All these states are facing challenges of reform and evolving governing systems which are responsive to the needs of their people and the requirements of a globalised world. However, reform must take place in a pace and manner which is in tune with the cultural heritage of those states. Prescriptions for an overnight leap to Western-style liberal democracies are a recipe for disaster and chaos.
We never reject the constructive advice of friends: On several occasions the British Government has raised its concerns about the situation in Bahrain with the Bahraini authorities, but it has also provided assistance in investigating the manufacture of bombs and explosives by militants in Manama, and has provided support for judicial and security sector reforms. We value this constructive and practical friendship in a time of need.
There have been calls for Britain and other states to completely halt defence sales to various Gulf States. The right to self-defence is one of the fundamental tenets of the UN’s Charter. The Arabian Gulf – particularly in the current climate – is one of the most strategically tense regions on the planet, and withdrawal of the ability of the smaller Gulf States to defend themselves would be tantamount to inviting foreign invasion.
Thus, David Cameron’s personal visit to the Gulf and his emphasis on continued defence support is an important and valued signal of Britain’s continued commitment to Gulf security at a highly politically sensitive moment and both Britain and the Gulf stand to benefit from this.