The Other Special Relationship: Britain and the UAE

Article published by the Gatestone Institute, 12 September 2021. © Richard Kemp

Here in Britain there has been great concern about ruptures to the UK-US special relationship following the catastrophic unilateral US withdrawal from Afghanistan and US President Joe Biden’s intransigence over the emergency evacuation from Kabul.

Another long-term special relationship enjoyed by Britain — with the United Arab Emirates — was also affected by events in Afghanistan, but in a positive direction. A few days ago, Britain’s ambassador in Abu Dhabi said the evacuation of UK citizens from Kabul was made possible by the assistance of the UAE who provided a staging airport as well as support from across government ministries.

In Dubai recently, I again witnessed the ever-growing miracle of engineering, finance and enterprise that has bloomed in the Arabian Desert, aided not least by Britain’s unique connections with the territory and its people since the early 1800s — a century and a half before the formation of the Emirates as we know them today. Around 200,000 Britons live in the UAE and more than a million visit each year, for business or tourism. The UAE is Britain’s largest trading partner in the Middle East, and the UK is the UAE’s third biggest partner in non-oil commodities trade. Britain is one of the largest investors in the UAE, which also has many major investments here.

Beyond mutual economic benefits, Britain and the UAE have shared geopolitical interests that echo back 80 years to the decades when Britain helped defend the land against those who wanted to seize it for themselves. UAE forces — which had their origins in the British-led Trucial Oman Scouts — fought with the US coalition in the 1990-91 Gulf War and with NATO in Kosovo. The UAE was the only Arab nation that deployed troops into Afghanistan during the 20-year campaign, conducting combat operations alongside other coalition forces and providing significant humanitarian aid. As well as assisting the British evacuation from Kabul, the UAE Air Force played a major role of its own in the operation, and the country is now hosting thousands of Afghan refugees.

With the global fallout from the Afghanistan debacle only just beginning, Britain’s alliance with the UAE will become increasingly important. No longer curbed by the presence of international forces in the country, Afghanistan is again poised to become the global hub for jihadist terrorists. Its new interim government is made up of Taliban old guard, with many hardened terrorists sitting in the cabinet. Ken McCallum, Director General of MI5, Britain’s lead agency on countering terrorism, warned last week of a greater threat to the UK in the coming months and years following our withdrawal from Afghanistan.

UK Prime Minister Theresa May meeting His Highness Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, in February 2017

No world leader is better equipped to help us understand and contain this rising threat to Britain and our international interests than Mohamed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and the greatest foe of radical Islamism in the Arab world. He helped stem the escalating regional challenge of the Muslim Brotherhood from Egypt; his forces combatted Al Shabab in Somalia, supported the Libyan National Army against its Islamist opponents and fought against Islamic State in Syria and Iran-sponsored Houthi insurgents, Al Qaida and the Islamic State in Yemen. Britain may not agree with all UAE foreign policies — for example their support for Assad in Syria, which is intended as a buttress against Islamists as well as Turkish and Iranian aggression — but there is no doubting the value of our strategic alliance in confronting this multi-generational global menace.

British and UAE intelligence services are close. Intelligence provided by the UAE has helped save British lives and the country is a world-leader in combatting terrorist finance and extremist propaganda, including on the internet. The Emirates actively share their de-radicalisation programmes and ideas with allies across the Arab world, the West and countries such as India, which also faces assault by radical Islamists. De-radicalisation is among the greatest counter-terrorist problems Britain faces today, with tens of thousands on its watch lists, a growing jihadist prison population and increasing radicalisation in its universities. The UK’s existing de-radicalisation programmes are clearly failing, as demonstrated by Sudesh Amman and Usman Khan, who carried out savage attacks in London after release from prison. Britain should now be looking more to the UAE for urgent help.

The US withdrawal from Afghanistan also has wider implications in the Middle East. Faced with Iranian regional aggression and a growing nuclear threat, Arab countries are concerned that, under the Biden administration, the US is no longer a dependable ally. This could cause some to turn increasingly towards China or Russia, both already active in the region and on the lookout for opportunities to gain partners and undermine US influence. The other option for protection — and a far better one from the West’s point of view — is Israel, with the most powerful military in the Middle East and the will to use it when necessary.

Greater reliance on Israel by Arab states, to stave off the nuclear threat from Iran and challenge its increasing belligerence, has been made possible by the Abraham Accords, which publicly opened the path for increased cooperation. The single most important player here was the UAE.

Lord Trimble, former First Minister of Northern Ireland and a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, nominated Mohamed bin Zayed for the same award in recognition of his ‘historic achievements in advancing peace in the Middle East’.

Britain and Europe took a lukewarm approach to the accords, partly because they were driven by then US President Donald J. Trump and partly because the Foreign Office in London, mired in an outdated understanding of regional dynamics, had failed to keep up with the thinking of Arab states who no longer saw Israel as their enemy. Like so many in Europe, unthinkingly wedded to decades of failed peace processing, London also has been unable to recognise that normalised relations between Israel and Arab countries is the only way to eventually persuade Palestinians that their own future and prosperity might lie in the same direction rather than with continued hostility.

Under Biden, the US is no longer interested in developing the Abraham Accords, and we should be looking to the UAE’s leadership to further strengthen and broaden them. Britain should stand with them. As with the UAE, we are a close and historic ally of Israel, with significant influence across the Middle East. Freed by Brexit from our stifling dependency on the EU, we should now be ready to play a leading role alongside Abu Dhabi in this strategically important process, both in our own interests and in the interests of peace in the region.

Image: Jay Allen, Crown Copyright