by Kristian Coates Ulrichsen
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s March 7 visit to London provides a fleeting opportunity for Britain’s embattled government to put aside for a day the chaotic uncertainty of the torturous Brexit negotiations and pursue its plan to build a “Global Britain” once withdrawal from the European Union is secured. Prime Minister Theresa May and her Cabinet are expected to prioritize trade and investment over human rights and the humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen in their talks with Saudi Arabia’s millennial strongman and talk up the (remote) prospects for a listing of five percent of Saudi Aramco on the London Stock Exchange. But while Mohammed bin Salman sees his London stop as but a prelude to his far larger-scale visit to the United States later in March, for May’s beleaguered premiership it represents an awkward litmus test of the outreach to Gulf States that is a component of its shaky post-Brexit vision.
It is hardly surprising that the British government has chosen the Gulf to try and offset the spiraling upheaval over post-Brexit Britain’s place in the world. The Gulf is one of the few areas where Britain holds an advantage, partly through the legacy of British protection of the ruling sheikhs during the nineteenth and much of the twentieth centuries, but additionally through the soft asset of the British royal family, which is regularly deployed to fellow monarchies. UK policymakers adopted a “Two Kingdoms dialogue” with Saudi Arabia in the late 2000s to emphasize their shared royal heritage, even if subsequent results proved underwhelming. Regular visits to the Gulf by Prince Charles and Prince Andrew, as well as the close relationship of senior Gulf leaders, such as the emirs of Bahrain and Kuwait, with Queen Elizabeth, also enable Britain to project a degree of soft power that most of its trade rivals find hard to match.
Indeed, since taking office in 2010, initially in coalition with the Liberal Democrats, Conservative governments under David Cameron and Theresa May concentrated heavily on strengthening commercial relationships with the Gulf States and rebuilding historic ties that were perceived to have suffered during the 13 years of Labour government (1997-2010) under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. Cameron’s first overseas visit as prime minister in 2010 was to the United Arab Emirates (UAE), followed by a bilateral UAE-UK Taskforce. Cameron lobbied the UAE intensively in an ultimately futile attempt to secure a Typhoon fighter contract for BAE Systems and became a virtual cheerleader for Dubai’s successful campaign to host Expo 2020. The British government additionally launched a UK government review of the Muslim Brotherhood after coming under heavy pressure to do so by the UAE and Saudi Arabia, which both designated the group and many of its affiliates as terrorist organizations in 2014.
The Conservative government’s “mercantile” post-2010 foreign policy has come in for criticism by opposition and human rights groups in the Gulf for seemingly prioritizing trade and investment over political and human rights issues. Nor has it been uniformly successful, as the BAE Systems example illustrates, while British ties with Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain were strained by political criticism of government crackdowns after the Arab Spring. Nevertheless, the sustained ministerial focus on trade relations did bring British-Gulf relations closer together, and Theresa May’s presence in Bahrain in December 2016 as the invited guest at the Gulf Cooperation Council’s annual summit seemed to portend a glowing new chapter in ties with the six-member GCC.
The challenge for May’s government is that the election of Donald Trump has focused GCC attention on Washington, DC in a major way. Saudi and especially Emirati leaders reached out to the Trump administration to try and shape its thinking about regional affairs while their Qatari counterparts responded to the Saudi-Emirati blockade in June 2017 by intensifying their own outreach in the US. Protagonists on both sides of the bitter Gulf squabble have realized that the battle to win hearts and minds will be won or lost in DC, especially as the White House prepares to redouble its search for a mediated solution to the nine-month dispute. Mohammed bin Salman also will look to the Trump administration to support a push for a Saudi nuclear program and the maintenance of pressure on Iran. The hard truth for May and Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson is that the attention of the Crown Prince likely will be focused on Washington rather than London, particularly as there appears to be little geopolitically the British government can offer Saudi Arabia.
British interests have been hit harder than most other international partners of the Gulf States by the fracturing of the GCC. Immediately after May became prime minister in July 2016 hopes were high that Britain could negotiate a free trade agreement with the GCC, and Saudi officials indicated the same month that preparatory talks were already underway. Such an agreement would have boosted the beleaguered British government’s efforts to produce a quick win to show it could thrive outside the European Union, especially after initial hopes that Britain could reach similar FTAs with other partners such as Australia or Canada foundered. From the GCC perspective, a trade deal with the United Kingdom likewise would have contrasted sharply with the longstanding failure to seal a similar agreement with the EU as on-off talks collapsed in acrimony in 2009 and have yet to be restarted.
Mohammed bin Salman’s short stop in London is more likely to draw attention to Britain’s diminished place in the world rather than represent the breakthrough Boris Johnson called for in a paean of praise to the Saudi leadership published in Al Sharq Al Awsat, a Saudi-owned London-based newspaper. British interests in the Gulf may instead advance more concretely through a quieter yet incremental concentration on the buildup of British military partnerships in the Gulf. Britain and Bahrain signed a landmark agreement in 2015 for a British base that signified the return of the Royal Navy to the Gulf for the first time in 44 years while in 2017 Britain reached agreement to use naval facilities at the Omani port of Duqm. Already in 2018, the Royal Air Force has announced the creation of a joint Typhoon squadron with the Qatari Air Force, and the British ambassador to Kuwait has indicated that Britain might establish a small yet permanent military presence in that country as well.
These measures are guaranteed to resonate in the highly security-centric environment in the Gulf and offer Britain a lower-key yet more tangible prospect of success than the attempt to woo Mohammed bin Salman or lay the foundations for a “Global Britain” more aspirational than realistic.
Kristian Coates Ulrichsen is a Fellow for the Middle East at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy. Photo: Mohammed bin Salman and Teresa May.