• plans to increase military presence where bad human rights record
• idea to deter Iran or promote arms sales?
The Queen and her ministers this week will welcome Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, president of the United Arab Emirates, on his state visit to Britain.
The visit comes at a time when the government appears to be deepening the UK’s special relationship with authoritarian Gulf states with poor human rights records but on which it relies for much of its energy supplies and more of its arms sales.
Sheikh Khalifa will be welcomed at Windsor Castle days after three Britons in Dubai, part of the UAE, were found guilty of possessing drugs and sentenced to four years each in prison after, they say, they were tortured by police following their arrest, given electric shocks, and had guns held to their heads.
The three Londoners said they signed documents in Arabic – a language none of them understands – following their arrests because they were forced to at the point of a gun.
The visit also comes amid a warning that Britain could “find itself very much on the fault line of searing sectarianism, between the Sunni and Shia worlds of Islam, that is increasingly defining the geopolitical landscape of Gulf and Middle Eastern security”.
The warning comes in a report, A Return to East of Suez?, published on Monday by the Royal United Services Institute, Rusi. The “unintended consequences and outcomes of the UK’s strategic embrace of Arab Gulf states should not be underestimated”, it says.
Britain’s deepening military presence in the Gulf was signaled by General Sir David Richards, the chief of defence staff, in December last year when he spoke of British troops and strike aircraft based in the Gulf.
Philip Hammond, the defence secretary, had recently signed a defence cooperation agreement with Bahrain which is already used as a UK naval base.
A month before Richards spoke, in November 2012, David Cameron agreed “a long-term defence partnership” within the UAE and visited the Al-Minhad air base in Dubai with Emirati officials to inspect RAF Typhoon aircraft.
The Rusi report notes that the RAF was using the air base as a “logistics hub for the mission in Afghanistan” and a place from British military assets “could easily be redeployed to areas prone to conflict in the Middle East, Asia and Africa”.
The government, meanwhile, is trying to sell 60 Typhoon strike aircraft to the UAE, in a deal valued at some £3bn (and sell a 40 more Typhoons to Saudi Arabia and Oman in a deal which could be worth a further £3bn).
The Rusi paper also points out that as the US is turning its attention towards Asia and the Pacific, Washington will welcome the British government’s apparent decision to beef up its military presence in the Gulf.
Further, it would enable Britain “to play a more substantial role in India and Pakistan, and possibly also to intervene in the current situation in Syria, in any post-2014 crises in Afghanistan, or even in Iraq.”
But potential dangers lie ahead.
After referring to Britain finding itself on the “fault line of searing sectarianism” the Rusi report adds: “With Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and (to a lesser extent) Kuwait all contending with significant sectarian challenges to their internal security, and with Iran and Saudi Arabia engaged in what is so far a sectarian cold war in which the temperature could quite easily rise, the unintended consequences and outcomes of the UK’s strategic embrace of Arab Gulf states should not be underestimated.”
Does the government know the potential pitfalls ahead?
Monday’s report warns there is a danger that the deployment of UK forces in the Gulf would be large enough to “get us into trouble” but too small to get us out of trouble once it starts.
So what is the strategic purpose of the return to “east of Suez”?
If it is to deter Iran, then it had to be “underpinned by the ready availability of a credible and significant military force”, the report says.
If it is only to strengthen Britain’s ties to the Arab Gulf states for a range of reasons including defence sales, trade and investment, then that should be admitted publicly.
The British government should explain what its strategy is, and the motives behind it.