What Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed's visit to London means to the UK

The UAE's deepening relationship with Britain offers numerous economic opportunities

The flurry of high-profile trade deals taking place during this week’s visit to London by Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, highlights how the deepening trade and investment ties between the two countries are helping to usher in a new era in an enduring relationship.

At a time when much of the world’s attention is still focused on the fall-out from the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, there is an understandable tendency to view the relationship between Abu Dhabi and London through the prism of military co-operation.

Britain has been a prominent contributor to the naval mission to safeguard Gulf security, and maintains a close alliance with the UAE Armed Forces as they confront a number of regional challenges.

But the long-standing arrangements on military cooperation only tell part of the story concerning the historic relationship between the UAE and London.

While co-operation on security issues of mutual concern remains an important dimension of the dealings between the two countries, the deepening trade and commercial links promise to herald a new, and far deeper, commitment that will lead to far closer co-operation in a wide variety of new and exciting spheres of technological development.

The importance of these new ties was highlighted during Sheikh Mohamed’s meeting with Prime Minister Boris Johnson at 10 Downing Street on Thursday, when the two leaders launched the “Partnership for the Future” between the two countries. In addition to holding bilateral discussions with the British leader, Sheikh Mohamed also received a military Guard of Honour before attending a UK-UAE business reception.

As Mr Johnson commented to The National prior to the meeting, the aim of the talks was to build on the “long and rich history to the benefit of both our people”.

“The UK and the UAE are natural partners and allies, with a shared belief in harnessing the technologies of the future to address climate change, solve global issues and deliver prosperity to our people,” Mr Johnson said.

At the heart of the deepening trade ties between the two countries, which has been described as a “step change” in relations between the UAE and UK, is a bilateral agreement on the expansion of the Sovereign Investment Partnership, initially announced last March, which was launched with an initial £1 billion ($1.38bn) investment in life sciences.

The UAE is already a key trading partner for the UK, with total trade between the two countries worth an estimated $17bn in 2020. A UK government official suggested the UAE’s overall investment commitment in the UK over the next five years could be worth an additional $14bn.

The UAE is already a key trading partner for the UK

The figure is certainly likely to increase significantly following this week’s bilateral discussions between officials from the two countries, which will lead to increased investments across the UK in life sciences, technology, energy transition and infrastructure.

While, from Mr Johnson’s perspective, the new initiative will help him achieve his political drive for job creation and spreading prosperity throughout the UK – part of his so-called “levelling up” agenda – both sides see their ambitious partnership both in terms of driving progress in science and innovation while at the same time developing security and prosperity.

The UAE and Britain are already working closely together on the green technology sector, seeking to develop carbon-neutral solutions that will be vital to promoting a sustainable planet. And with Britain due to host the Cop26 climate summit in Glasgow in November, Mr Johnson is keen that Britain positions itself at the forefront of the green revolution.The UAE's special envoy for climate change Dr Sultan Al Jaber has regular meeting with the UK's president of Cop26 Alok Sharma.

Now the UK is aiming to expand on these existing ties by developing closer relations in other dynamic fields of new technology, such as life sciences.

As Khaldoon Al Mubarak, the chief executive and managing director of Mubadala group, explained in an interview withThe National, a key aim for the partnership was increased cooperation on science and technology.

“We are looking to the future, using the strengths of what we know,” he explained. The four new sectors of focus of the partnership would help to “match our ambitions ... we are all on the same page”, with the UK.

The foreign ministers of both countries will also participate in an annual UK-UAE Strategic Dialogues, which will begin later this year. The trade alliance is also expected to feature prominently at next month’s Global Investment Summit in London.

"By working ever more closely together, our nations will be at the forefront of the industries of the future, helping to tackle climate change and boost prosperity,” commented Mr Johnson.

The growing importance of the British government’s role in supporting closer cooperation in the Middle East was reflected earlier in the week at a meeting of the newly created UK Abraham Accords Group, which is led by Dr Liam Fox, the former UK defence secretary and international trade minister.

At a meeting attended by leading diplomats from Israel, Bahrain and the UAE, Dr Fox stressed the important role the Accords had played in fostering closer relations in the region.

“I'm acutely aware of the fact that nothing breeds success like success, and if you want this accord to be seen to be succeeding, then we have to have tangible benefits, larger economic benefits,” said Dr Fox.

His sentiments were echoed by Dr Anwar Gargash, diplomatic adviser to UAE President Sheikh Khalifa.

Speaking at the gathering on the terrace of Parliament, where the flags of the countries that are signatories to the Accords were assembled together, Dr Gargash highlighted the importance of trade ties in helping to build on the role the Accords have played in fostering better relations in the Middle East.

“Normalisation is not an event, it really is a process,” he said. “I see this developing even better as we see more trust being built, as we see more business being done, as we see a bigger network being established. We will see that this process will be in due course even more important than the event itself.”

Published: September 16th 2021, 2:14 PM
Con Coughlin

Con Coughlin

Con Coughlin is a defence and foreign affairs columnist for The National