Queen Elizabeth jubilee: 1970s tour of the Gulf 'cemented Britain's ties with region'

Experts pay tribute to British monarch and her role in UK's relations with the Arab world

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British ties with the Gulf were cemented by Queen Elizabeth II’s visit to the region in the early 1970s, experts told The National, as the monarch marked 70 years of service on Friday.

No other British royal has had a platinum jubilee like the queen, who acceded the throne on February 6, 1952 after the death of her father King George VI.

During her time in service, the queen has met significant figures from the Middle East and North Africa as well as witnessing pivotal changes in the region.

Her most notable state tour of the region was in 1979 when she visited the UAE, eight years after the emirates' unification in 1971.

It was part of her six-nation tour of the Gulf.

Chris Doyle, director of Caabu, Council for Arab-British Understanding, told The National: “The British monarchy through [Queen Elizabeth’s] efforts established warm deep ties with ruling families in the Gulf. Her 1979 visit to the all six Gulf Arab states was particularly notable as she sailed undeterred into the stormy Gulf waters after the Iranian revolution on the Royal Yacht Britannia.”

After the arrival on her royal yacht the queen was greeted by the UAE's Founding Father, Sheikh Zayed and was given a tour around a new municipality building and Jebel Ali port.

“This helped cement the ties in the era after Britain had left the Gulf in 1971. She was a female monarch in a region of male rulers,” Mr Doyle said.

Queen Elizabeth II's visit to the UAE and Gulf solidified the UK's relationship with these countries, said Hussein Ibish, senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.

"It strengthened the new relationship of partnership rather than empire with these emerging countries"

Although Washington became the main guarantor of security and stability in the Gulf, the UK still played an "important role in several key crises", Mr Ibish said.

For example, "thwarting the attempt by Iran to seize control of Bahrain when it gained independence from Britain was a joint Anglo-American initiative," Mr Ibish said. Britain also played a significant role in liberating Kuwait from Iraqi occupation in 1991, along with a large Arab contingent of forces, he said.

A vital role that Britain played in the Gulf Arab monarchies' early state formation was providing security guarantees and support for the ruling families of the region, said Sanam Vakil, deputy director of the Middle East North Africa programme at London's Chatham House.

"Despite its withdrawal from its East of Suez posts, the UK continues to nurture important defence, economic and political interests," Ms Vakil told The National.

Looking into the future

Today, the UK’s role in the region is primarily defined in terms of security and culture.

“Commerce is very much a secondary factor now between the UK and the Gulf. Nonetheless, the British role as a familiar and generally friendly and supportive Western power in the Gulf region is significant,” Mr Ibish told The National.

Britain, like the US, remains effectively a status quo power both globally and with regard to the Gulf region.

"This means it shares a broad sense of purpose and vision for the future with Gulf Arab countries and not with their regional antagonists, such as Iran, which are hostile to the regional and even the global order," Mr Ibish said.

On the cultural level, there remains a large number of British citizens living in the UAE and other Gulf states.

"You see the relationship deepening at different levels not least the cultural," Mr Doyle said. "It is no longer just a question of defence, security and oil."

However, there are some challenges that have arisen.

Britain has been distracted by Brexit, the Covid-19 pandemic and now the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Mr Doyle said.

"Many traditional allies feel ignored, that they are not being listened to, not least in Downing Street. As with relationships, even close ones, it has to be worked at," he said.

Updated: June 03, 2022, 8:38 AM