Western foreign policy towards the Gulf States has been much debated recently. Over the last few months of the Obama administration, American foreign policy has moved considerably further away from the member states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). It was a huge surprise not only to Saudi Arabia but also the other GCC members when Washington introduced the “Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act”. This has essentially made it possible for American citizens to take legal action in US courts against Saudi Arabia for the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
To an extent, the end of the sanctions on Iran symbolised a step forward in global security. Iran was no longer perceived as a threat that could allegedly obliterate the West; instead, it is seen as a country that could potentially contribute greatly as a global trade partner and an ally in the war against terrorism. In turn, this meant that the Obama administration concentrated more on Saudi Arabia and its alleged role in the “destabilisation” of the international community.
When the US moved further from the GCC and closer diplomatically to Iran, it was expected that Britain would be quick to follow suit, due to the US-UK “special relationship”. So far, there are few signs that this will happen.
British policy towards the GCC and Iran
When examining Britain’s latest Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDSR), published in November last year, it is clear that the government’s foreign and defence policy towards the MENA region entails leaning closer to the Gulf Arab states. The review stated that the GCC members “are vital partners for the UK in working towards sustainable, long-term regional stability, in addressing direct threats to the UK from terrorism, extremism and organised crime, and for our energy security.” It reiterated that Britain’s relations with the GCC are “broad and deep” and that “build[ing] a permanent and more substantial UK military presence to reflect our historic relationships, the long-term nature of both challenges and opportunities and to reassure our Gulf allies” is a priority objective in the way that the UK envisions its relations with the bloc.
On Iran, the British establishment was arguably more cautiously optimistic than its US counterparts. Upon reaching a final agreement for the Iran deal in Vienna, Britain’s then Prime Minister David Cameron said, “Now we must ensure that this deal is fully implemented.” He reiterated that the benefits of the Iran deal will materialise only “if Iran delivers on all the agreed actions required to fully address international concerns about its programme” and that “this agreement will not solve all the difficulties” between Iran and the international community.
The SDSR showed an equal amount of caution. While the document states that the UK is planning on “building on the successful cooperation that we shared in negotiations on Iran’s nuclear programme,” much emphasis was placed on “that it [Iran] meets its obligations to ensure its nuclear programme is exclusively peaceful.” The Ministry of Defence also encouraged Iran to “meet its obligations to ensure that its nuclear programme is exclusively peaceful.” From London’s reaction to the lifting of the Iranian sanctions, it is clear why British foreign and defence policy suggests less confidence about Iran and the GCC than Washington does.
Prince Charles’ visit to the GCC
The Prince of Wales and Duchess of Cornwall have been on a tour of the Gulf States. They started their trip in Oman, and then visited the UAE before landing in Bahrain. Though the tour is mainly for cultural purposes — they took part in local traditional activities and visited cultural monuments — the trip is, in fact, heavily politicised.
Prince Charles, for example, described the UAE’s aid programme as “literally second to none” while visiting Dubai’s International Humanitarian City. This may be true, but his comments angered many activists who highlight the Emirates’ human right’s abuses.
“Prince Charles’ comments completely ignore the darker track record of the UAE in human rights,” said a spokesperson of the International Campaign for Freedom in the United Arab Emirates (ICFUAE). “Since 2011, we have seen a fierce crackdown on basic freedoms of speech and assembly as Emirati residents have been arbitrarily detained for simply calling for political reforms. Sending large amounts of aid abroad is not an excuse for disregarding human rights within their own country.”
More importantly, the heir to the throne opened a new military base during the visit to Bahrain; a British military base, the country’s first permanent military presence in the Gulf region since 1971. It will be used by the Royal Navy and Special Forces as a forward operating base and a place for planning, storing equipment for naval operations and accommodating naval personnel. Troops from the other services will also be using the facility, which has cost nearly £40 million, of which more than £30 million has been paid by the Manama government, with London paying the remaining £7.5 million.
Before the base was even open, human rights organisations condemned Prince Charles for visiting Bahrain. Amnesty International even urged the Prince of Wales to, at the very least, highlight the human rights situation when he is with the Bahraini monarch. The head of policy and government affairs at Amnesty UK, Allan Hogarth, was not hopeful, though. He admitted that Amnesty is not expecting Prince Charles “to reinvent himself as a human rights campaigner on this trip.”
British interests put first
Despite the fact that the United States has implemented a relatively harsher policy against the GCC and there have been domestic condemnations of British policy towards the local regimes, UK-GCC relations have remained strong. It is clear that London values its relationship with the GCC too much to follow the US in refining its relations vis-a-vis Iran and the Gulf States.
The fact that the Obama administration, which in its latter days is becoming significantly more hostile towards Riyadh, is coming to a close means that the days of this new negativity may also end. While a Clinton administration would probably have guaranteed that Washington would repair its relations with the Saudi government, under President Donald Trump, US policy towards the GCC is likely to be relatively ambiguous. Whatever the US decides to do, though, it looks as if it is business as usual as far as links between Britain and the GCC member states are concerned. Mutual interests will always take priority.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.