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An unwelcome present?

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Angus Taverner

Director- Global Affairs

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UK UAE relations after Eurofighter


With London in traditional end-of-year party mode, on 19th December the UAE government despatched a most unwelcome Christmas present in the form of an announcement that the UAE was no longer considering Eurofighter Typhoon as a possible replacement for the 60-strong Mirage jet-fighter fleet of the UAE Air Force.
The news made the lead on the front of the business pages of most of Britains newspapers and in the US, with the Financial Times summing up the collective view of the UAEs decision as a bruising setback and big embarrassment for the British Prime Minister.  It has certainly been the case that David Cameron has put personal effort into rebuilding what had been seen as the neglect of UAE relations under the prime ministership of his predecessor, Gordon Brown.  Moreover, the British government and lead contractor BAE Systems had talked encouragingly and often confidently of reports that UAE Air Force officers believed that Eurofighter was the best aircraft available to meet their requirements.
A surprise Cameron visit to the UAE on the eve of the Dubai Air Show at the end of November led a number of British commentators to anticipate an imminent announcement of a UAE order for Eurofighter.  They reasoned that the British Prime Minister would not have interrupted his journey home from the Commonwealth Heads of Government Conference in Sri Lanka unless a positive announcement was imminent. In retrospect, it now seems likely that David Cameron was making a last ditch effort to persuade the UAE leadership to keep Eurofighter in play rather than this being the triumphant media opportunity that many commentators perceived.  For those who watch the UAE closely, speculation that such an important military equipment acquisition would be announced at the Dubai Airshow always seemed unlikely.
In characteristic fashion, British commentators immediately determined that failure to win the UAE contract should be attributed to various failings, including the Sunday Times implication that the UK had not been willing to bribe the right people!
The truth seems to have been more straightforward.  The Cameron government and BAE were almost certainly guilty of over-selling the likelihood of a sale of Eurofighter to the UAE.  Abu Dhabi has a long and trusting relationship with Frances Dassault, and the late entry of Eurofighter as a possible alternative to Rafale always looked primarily to be a means of putting pressure on the French to produce a more acceptable pricing mechanism. 
Moreover, it would also be wrong not to take note of the recent shifts in the geo-strategic challenges now facing the UAE. Political upheavals in the wake of what used to be termed The Arab Spring together with the significant shift in the political make-up of Irans government mean that the UAE, along with all the other Gulf states, are in the throes of a significant reassessment of their defence and security needs.  It is noteworthy that even as the British-led offering has been ruled out, the UAE has still not made any announcement as to which way it is likely to proceed.  It would be premature to score this as a French victory.
And for those who have portrayed the pre-Christmas announcement marking an end for UK-UAE relations, they simply seem to be wrong.  The two countries interests are much wider and deeper than just a single military project albeit an important one. The British government did not invite HH President Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed al Nahyan to make one of only two State visits to the UK last year merely to sell him jet-fighter aircraft.  Moreover, while Prime Minister Cameron would have been delighted to take political credit for securing a Eurofighter deal, with its implications for British jobs and investment, he will also be aware that there are many more layers of strategic and economic relationships which contribute to one of the most important bilateral relationships in the Middle East.
The UAE is the UKs largest civil export market in the Middle East and North Africa. It is the UKs 13th largest export of goods market, valued at around 5.1 billion annually. In turn, the overall value of UAE investment in the UK is estimated to be worth some 20 billion ($33billion).  This does not just comprise solely the acquisition of Premier League football clubs but includes important infrastructure investment such as Dubai Ports Worlds development of the London Gateway.
It is estimated that over 120,000 British nationals live and work in the UAE, many of them in senior and influential positions.  The announcement of the 2014 New Years Honours list in the UK saw the President of Emirates Airline becoming a Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire (KBE) - Sir Tim Clark.
Finally, on the strategic front, the United States has made it clear that it wishes to focus more energy on relations with Asia and the Pacific Rim countries, and Washington is looking to London and other European capitals to shoulder a greater share of enduring security responsibilities in the Gulf region.  Both the UK and France have responded positively to this challenge.  It is no surprise to find many former British military officers working as advisors and trainers alongside their Emirati colleagues in Abu Dhabi and elsewhere.
Relations between the United Arab Emirates and the United Kingdom are founded on a rich heritage.  Since independence in 1971, the strength of the relationship has fluctuated.  Today, despite probably unrealistic expectations surrounding Eurofighter Typhoon, the number of Brits working in Abu Dhabi and Dubai, and the number of Emiratis living, studying and working in the UK attests to a relationship which remains strong, culturally deep and multi-faceted.  Rumours of its imminent death are exaggerated.


Angus Taverner is a Principal Consultant at b'huth and Director of the UK office.


Photo credit: Eurofighter typhoon. Source: Adrian, www.Wikipedia.com

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