During his most recent visit to Abu Dhabi, British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt hailed the United Arab Emirates as a beacon of tolerance. Barely four months earlier, the tone was somewhat different, with the Matthew Hedges “spying” debacle threatening to cause a serious rift in bilateral ties. News has now emerged that, far from prioritising Hedges’ freedom, Britain was, in fact, close to signing a memorandum of understanding with the UAE whilst the PhD student was still detained and facing life imprisonment. The UAE’s continued abuse of the rights of Emiratis and Yemenis, as well as UK citizens Ali Issa Ahmed and Andrew Neal, lays bare Britain’s failure to hold its historical ally to account.
Today the UAE acts with total impunity. This would not be possible if it were not for the key role outlined for the Gulf in the current British government’s post-Brexit vision of “Global Britain”. The seven Emirates which now constitute the UAE were once ruled as British protectorates known as the Trucial States alongside Bahrain and Qatar; both were initially set to join the UAE, but Saudi Arabia ensured that they did not. Although the UAE has become an important international political, economic and military actor, it remains heavily dependent on Britain, the USA, and France for its security and defence; all three maintain permanent military bases there.
Britain’s inertia regarding the UAE’s mounting human rights abuses is entirely unjustifiable but taken within the context of its colonial past it comes as no major surprise. In 1930, Lebanese journalist Ameen Rihani wrote: “Security and peace England has brought to the Arabs of the Gulf… But what is it costing the Arabs? The Gulf should be renamed: it is neither Persian nor Arabian, it is British.” Unwavering British support for their favoured rulers in the Gulf ensures British economic and strategic interests are protected, at the expense of the Khaleeji people.
Global Britain as advocated by Trade Minister Liam Fox and Defence Minister Gavin Williamson is steeped in imperial nostalgia for the East India Company and the British Raj. UK foreign policy is predominantly a tool to boost trade and protect British commercial interests. In April 2018, at the opening of the Royal Navy base in Bahrain, the need for a British military presence in the Gulf to fortify the post-Brexit project was spelled out by Williamson: “Our Armed Forces are the face of Global Britain and our presence in Bahrain will play a vital role in keeping Britain safe as well as underpinning security in the Gulf.”
British and American defence and security contractors also work directly for Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) member states; RAF pilots, for example, are seconded via BAE Systems to train the Royal Saudi Air Force, and around 7,000 UK personnel in total are involved in the Saudi bombing of Yemen. Private military companies, such as those set up by former US Navy Seal Erik Prince, are rarely held to account. Prince, who is an Abu Dhabi resident and has worked as an adviser to the emirate’s Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Zayed, spoke of appointing a “viceroy” to oversee the deployment of a private military force to take over from the US military in Afghanistan: “An East India Company approach would use cheaper private solutions to fill the gaps that plague the Afghan security forces, including reliable logistics and aviation support.”
Although companies like BAE Systems and individuals like Erik Prince continue to evade accountability, the UAE and Saudi Arabia have come under increasing scrutiny from civil society in the West, not least because of the detention of Matthew Hedges, the murder of Jamal Khashoggi and the war on Yemen. Oblivious to all of this, British and French firms BAE Systems and Thales continue to work closely with the Gulf States despite widespread public opposition to arms sales to the UAE and Saudi Arabia. The Bundestag’s ban on arms sales to Saudi Arabia has jeopardised a BAE Systems deal to export 48 Eurofighter Typhoons, as the planes require parts made only in Germany.
The stance of the British government and BAE Systems is harder than ever to justify whilst their behaviour comes across as increasingly desperate. Last summer, BAE Systems opened an office on the grounds of the UK Embassy in Kuwait. This reflects the lack of any attempt on Britain’s behalf to conceal the fact that British embassies in the Gulf are there primarily to serve controversial business interests. Meanwhile, British nationals have complained of not receiving adequate support when they have been unjustly detained in the UAE. In a high-priority market such as the UAE, human rights are a low-priority for UK foreign missions.
Since the late 1960s, oil revenues from the Gulf have been reinvested in Britain through arms deals and real estate investments. Bilateral trade between the UAE and UK grows each year. Indeed, ties between Britain and the UAE have in no sense reduced since the latter’s independence. A major reason for this is the Iranian revolution of 1979 that deposed Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the “Policeman of the Gulf”. After Prime Minister Harold Wilson withdrew from East of Suez in 1971, Britain mistook the Shah’s regime as a stable ally, but eight years later he was overthrown. The formation of the GCC in Abu Dhabi in 1981 can be seen as a reaction to the fall of the Shah. The events of 1979 served to renew the importance of the Gulf States as the main guarantors of Western interests in the region.
The UAE has been keen to position itself as a key ally in the US-led war on terror ever since it was declared by former US President George W Bush in 2001. So long as the USA, Britain, and France have army, air and navy bases in the Gulf, occasional statements of concern about human rights from Western leaders constitute no real challenge to the relationship sustaining the local rulers. Bin Zayed in the UAE and King Hamad in Bahrain know full well that despite increasing repression they remain crucial to the economic and strategic interests of the USA, Global Britain, and Emmanuel Macron’s France.
In the UAE and other former British protectorates, particularly Bahrain, the rulers’ reliance on foreign support instead of social contracts with their citizens is at the root of their terrible records of human rights abuses. In February 2011, Bahrain’s pro-democracy uprising was very visible, taking the form of street protests and the occupation of Lulu roundabout in Manama. Meanwhile, the pro-democracy movement in the UAE took a more gradualist approach; a petition was circulated and online discussion forums made waves but there were no public protests. The rulers of the UAE were fearful that developments in Bahrain and Egypt could spark an Emirati Spring, so they crushed internal dissent and supported the counter-revolutions in both countries.
In Bahrain and the UAE, the rulers could have made concessions which acceded to popular demands for democratic reforms without abandoning the framework of their constitutional monarchies. Instead, since 2011 there has been a crackdown on freedom of speech and the freedom to organise in the UAE, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia: political parties, human rights organisations, independent news outlets, and blogs have all been shut down; civil society has effectively been outlawed. Now the legitimacy of these monarchies has been called into question more than ever before.
The war on terror, interventions in Iraq, Libya and Yemen, as well as the cold war with Iran have all drawn in active and often conflicting roles for the GCC states. Saudi Arabia and the UAE have become important regional actors in their own right; no longer mere puppet states, they exert influence in Washington, London, and Paris. Yet to paraphrase David Wearing’s argument, the Gulf monarchies are sustained by a relationship of asymmetrical interdependence. They need us and we need them, but they need us more than we need them.
This is why the Bahraini uprising in 2011 was met with so much brutality and so little condemnation; the fragility of the relationship sustaining the Gulf monarchies was exposed, and the silence of the West was deafening. However, if leaders in the West do speak out, and use their leverage to combat the rights abuses which result from unconditional Western support for autocracies in the Gulf, governments of the people, by the people and for the people will emerge eventually, and truly independent Gulf States will join those nations around the world which have successfully removed the shackles of colonialism.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.