There is rarely a bad time for friends to get together, and on occasion there are very good reasons indeed. So it proved with the visit to the UAE this month by a group of British parliamentarians from three different parties to hold significant conversations at a time of uncertainty both in Europe and the Middle East.
With more than 120,000 British nationals living here and making a fantastic contribution to the success of the UAE, as well as a million tourists visiting the country last year, there are obvious reasons why we have a close connection that deserves fostering. But contemporary events, and the speed of those events, add to reasons why regular contact at senior level these days is a necessity rather than an occasional luxury.
The triggering on March 29 of the formal process by which the United Kingdom will leave the European Union sets the background to the most momentous political decision by the UK since 1945, and we were anxious to pick up early reaction. Although the UK voted to leave the EU in a referendum in June last year, we are aware of a certain scepticism that the decision would be followed through. As one who opposed and campaigned against leaving I was, however, quite clear that the parliament had made an agreement with the British people about the result standing, and that the UK’s best interests now lie with an end to the uncertainty and getting on with the practicalities of leaving.
These are daunting, and there are questions to which there are yet no answers, but the all-party parliamentary group had to stress that the course was set and would be seen through. In general, reactions were positive, both from UK friends in the British Business Group and Emirati contacts, who had no doubt that business links would be maintained and new opportunities sought. The agreed bilateral trade target of £25 billion (Dh115bn) by 2020 remains firmly in place and should be a cause for celebration at Expo 2020 in Dubai.
As the group flew home, we were reminded that the speed of events, as well as events themselves, were also a reason for close contacts. The missile strike on the Syrian airbase from which Bashar Al Assad launched the latest chemical assault on his people reversed in a moment president Barack Obama’s decision of August 2013 not to enforce his “red lines”. The action immediately altered perceptions of Donald Trump and raised questions about America’s engagement in the region. It is not about what the president said during the election campaign, or his policy.
The instinctive response to the dreadful chemical attack has to be measured against the countless numbers of deaths and displacements since 2013, and the US now has to have quickly in place some certainties upon which friends can rely.
The UK parliament, I am sure, will be looking to debate its own position in these changed circumstances.
Moreover, our discussion with Dr Anwar Gargash, Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, about the region in general was extremely pertinent.
The close relationship between our foreign and commonwealth office and the UAE Ministry of Foreign Affairs remains a vital bulwark for hopes of peace and stability throughout the Middle East. Across the board, our visit enabled British MPs to see at first hand and discuss issues at the highest level, including climate change, environment, space and energy policy, higher education and the New York University Abu Dhabi campus, the financial centre and the working of the DIFC Courts, policing, our cooperation in combating terrorism and extremism, the religious tolerance practised by the UAE and the workings of the Federal National Council.
It would be wrong to suggest that we see eye-to-eye on everything, but the depth of the relationship means that serious questions can be raised without fear, and positions better understood to mutual benefit.
We deeply appreciate that we were accompanied throughout by Sulaiman Almazroui, the Ambassador of the UAE to the UK, and that we met both Philip Parham, UK ambassador, and consul general Paul Fox. These close diplomatic ties are further evidence of the important links between us.
The all-party parliamentary group returned better informed of the UAE’s view of the region and the world and what we can both contribute to the future. That we shall continue to do so in the best possible spirit remains our aim. We look forward to welcoming friends to Westminster, and our own return.
Alistair Burt MP is the chair of the UAE all-party parliamentary group