Sheikh Abdullah's visit marked ties that run deep and go back centuries
As a political veteran who first held responsibility for Middle Eastern policy in 2010 and retains the portfolio this year, Alistair Burt has seen the bilateral relationship through several phases.
Last week, as as Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed visited Britain, Mr Burt reflected to The National some of the trends over the years and how the partnership worked on some of the biggest issues facing the international community.
The trip came as both countries were anticipating talks in Geneva over Yemen. The UAE, as a pillar of the Saudi-led international coalition fighting to restore the legimitate government to the country, has backed the efforts of UN envoy Martin Griffiths to reconcile it with warring factions. In the interview, Mr Burt said there continued to be sympathy in the British government for the goals of the coalition, even as Westminster hopes for a resolution through Yemen’s own national dialogue.
To that end, British officials have worked with the coalition and remained steadfast in the face of criticism from some quarters of the continuing conflict. “We remain understanding [about] why the coalition came into Yemen in the first place,” said Mr Burt, acknowledging that media attention was often diverted away from the actions of the Houthis and Iranian interests.
Speaking of the shared viewpoints, Mr Burt added that while battlefield pressure played its part, there was not a military solution. In the end, he said, both sides held the view that “for the obvious reasons the future of Yemen has got to Yemeni-determined”.
There is also a deep and developing partnership between Britain and the UAE on counter-extremism, through, for example, the trailblazing Abu Dhabi-based anti-extremism centre Hedayah. “We remain partners in countering global terrorism and absolutely share interests in countering extremism,” Mr Burt said.
The two countries will inevitably not always be identically aligned. Mr Burt has been a leading voice as Europe seeks to sustain the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran since US President Donald Trump pulled the US out and began restoring sanctions.
He talked of the fascinating network of ties and links, including trade, that have existed for generations across the Gulf. Fresh from his own trip to Iran, he drew a contrast with the overall atmosphere now reigning in Iran’s relationship with the region. The aggression of Tehran’s proxies and agents across the region is well-recognised. “No one is condoning this,” he said.
And he offered reassurance that whatever financial mechanisms are offered to Iran to sustain European trade will have necessary safeguards.
On the heels of his trip came Sheikh Abdullah’s visit to Britain, with the overriding theme of advancing cultural and personal connections between the two countries.
As Mr Burt pointed out, Britain has a historic relationship with the region that long predates the British joining the European Union and ties are not dependant on membership for vitality. The process of Brexit offers an opportunity to assure long-standing partners like the UAE of constructive future engagement. “I’ve been at some pains to explain that whatever Brexit may mean in terms of our foreign policy it won’t mean a country turning in on itself,” he adds.
And that indeed was something celebrated during the hectic UAE itinerary in London. Sheikh Abdullah inaugurated the Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan Gallery in the British Museum. The hall and its exhibits celebrate the deep ties that stretch from the ancient Middle East with the development of agriculture in the region. That led to cultural and lifestyle changes that transformed the world over thousands of years.
Members of the delegation, including Noura Al Kaabi, the Minister for Cultural and Knowledge Development and Zaki Nusseibeh, the UAE Minister of State, also attended an Emirati installation at the London Design Biennale. The Time is Subjective installation is also an important platform to showcase how far the seven emirates of the federation have developed unique conceptual perspectives in the decades since its foundation.
In addition to hosting a lunch with Sheikh Abdullah and the new foreign secretary, Jeremy Hunt, Mr Burt also attended the evening launch of the Emirates Society, a new meeting point for all those engaged with the UAE and its culture in the UK. The society aims to host exchanges and speeches that foster bilateral understanding. “One of the things that is interesting about the friendship society is that it was not purely about politicians and people pursuing political interest but it draws people across the board,” he said.
Whether it is the 100,000-plus Britons living and working in the UAE, the many Emiratis with a myriad of links to the UK or the biggest issues of the day, there is, it seems, a favourable stocktake of a broad and deep partnership.