In an attempt to improve political relations and strengthen existing ties between Arab states and the UK, Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II has been on a tour of Gulf states this week, including a visit to the United Arab Emirates which she last visited 31 years ago. Participants in the five day state visit include the Queen, her son Prince Andrew (the Duke of York), and British Foreign Secretary William Hague.
One of the immediate consequences of this visit has been a report from the Foreign Office in London that British policy will now begin “to change to reflect Arab concerns”. Not before time, we might say. Arab states have long been concerned with British foreign policy in relation to the Arab world. The concerns are many and varied but one of the major issues, not just for Arab governments but their people as well, has been the marginalisation of Arabs in favour of Israel. Many Arab countries and individuals feel alienated by Britain, whose primary concern in the region appears to be the strengthening of Israel at the expense of its Arab neighbours who are frequently demonised and caricatured to Israel’s benefit.
This is confusing, not least because a close examination prompts us to ask: what does Britain actually gain by its staunch support of Israel? If anything, Israel is a liability to the UK financially, politically, militarily and, indeed, morally. Our government’s dogged support for Israel is costing Britain friends at a time when friends are desperately needed, and rich friends at that. Although the Chancellor pledged his own and, one assumes, the British government’s undying support for Israel this week, this may have just been rhetoric for a specific audience. Last month Foreign Secretary William Hague said, “The British Government is committed to elevating the UK’s relationships with the countries of the Gulf. We have made this an early priority of our foreign policy and Ministers are devoting time and energy to it, including through our new National Security Council. The Gulf is a region of great opportunity and promise. The UK and the Gulf states have historic ties on which we are determined to build. And we already work closely on regional issues including the Middle East Peace Process…”
Let us not fool ourselves into thinking that emerging conciliatory gestures towards Arab states may be anything more than an attempt to trawl up some much-needed political and financial traction in very difficult times. The UK is in recession, the national debt is massive and student tuition fees have tripled, sending Britain into a spiral of civil unrest and anger nationally. The blame for this lies undoubtedly with the members of current and previous governments who took the country into costly and illegal wars, spending our taxes on military hardware for use overseas while pleading poverty at home. Nevertheless, the government clearly wants to get out of the current fiscal abyss. This is a quite probably why Britain’s hand of friendship is suddenly being proffered worldwide. Whether it is David Cameron’s recent trip to China or recent contracts in India, or the Queen’s Arab adventure, these overtures all boil down to cold, hard cash.
Arab countries can offer British companies lucrative contracts, high level investments and an injection of much-needed cash, whereas Israel – plagued as it is by serious and on-going allegations of war crimes and crimes against humanity can only offer a partnership of ignominy, the further erosion of our country’s reputation for fair play and justice, and more serious alienation of Britain from the rest of the world, Arab and non-Arab alike. The wealth through which Arab friends could boost UK financial markets could save us from even greater financial ruin.
Arab states have already invested massively in Britain, of course. Oil and gas rich countries, such as Qatar, want to diversify their investments and have spent billions of pounds in Britain over the past few years. Top British brands supported by Arab states include Harrods department store, bought by Qatar’s investment arm for £1.5 billion; Barclays Bank, saved from financial ruin last June by Qatari investors investing billions of pounds in exchange for a large stake in the company; Manchester City Football Club, owned by Sheikh Mansour, a member of Abu Dhabi’s ruling family; Coffee Republic, saved from administration when it was brought by Arab investors last year. A huge chunk of Sainsbury’s is owned by Qatar; and the Savoy Hotel is owned by a member of the Saudi Royal family. Many more investments may be just below the horizon, prompting the Foreign Office statement.
To encourage further Arab investment in British companies and industries there is no doubt that our foreign policy will have to be less hostile to the Arab world, something that Mr Hague appears finally to be accepting. While the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will be deterring many Arab and Muslim investors worldwide, the UK’s relationship with Israel will be doing so even more. If the price we have to pay for life-saving Arab support for our country’s economy is to distance Britain politically from a rogue state already well down the path of moral and legal degradation, it is no price to pay at all.
If it takes this element of financial self-preservation and self-interest to lead Britain and British foreign policy away from Israel, then that would be no bad thing. It is incredible to think that the British government considers Israel as a staunch ally when it is a country still occupying Palestinian and other Arab land in a brutal and repressive manner after more than four decades, and engaging in violations of international law (including the arrest and abuse of children, illegal settlement building, the illegal demolition of homes, and racial discrimination against its own Arab citizens) with apparent impunity and contempt for the rest of us.
A political and financial move away from Israel should have taken place years ago on moral and legal grounds alone, but if a financial incentive is what it takes to make British politicians take such a bold step, then so be it. Better late than never, and better now than not at all.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.