GCC and Britain announce new ‘strategic partnership’

The two sides also said they would 'oppose and work together to counter Iran’s destabilising activities in the region', reports Taimur Khan

Gulf leaders, including Vice President and Ruler of Dubai Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum (third from right), pose for a group shot with British prime minister Theresa May on December 7, 2016, the second day of the GCC summit. Carl Court/Getty Images
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Abu Dhabi // The Gulf states and Britain pledged to work together to counter Iran’s “destabilising activities” in the region as they announced a wide-ranging “strategic partnership” at the GCC Summit in Bahrain on Wednesday.

A joint statement issued by the six member states of the GCC and the UK said the partnership intended to enhance cooperation across a swathe of security, military and regional political interests, as well as increased trade.

The partnership was announced after an inaugural meeting between the bloc and Britain, represented by prime minister Theresa May, which was chaired by Bahrain’s King Hamad.

The two sides said they would “oppose and will work together to counter Iran’s destabilising activities in the region” and called on Tehran to “engage the region according to the principles of good neighbourliness, strict non-interference in domestic affairs, and respect for territorial integrity,” the communique said.

Most GCC countries view the region through the prism of what they see as Iranian aggression, and as with Washington, they would like London to do more to counter and contain Tehran.

But as with pledges by Barack Obama, the joint statement only went as far as saying the UK “remains committed” to helping the GCC protect against external aggression “just as it did during the Gulf War”, when Iraq invaded Kuwait.

Earlier in the day, Ms May said on the second day of the annual GCC Summit that the nuclear accord between world powers including the UK, and Iran, is “vitally important” for the region’s security.

Ms May, the first British prime minister to attend the meeting of Gulf leaders, said world powers had secured a deal “which has neutralised the possibility of Iran acquiring nuclear weapons for over a decade.”

On regional cooperation, the communique stated the two sides had “decided on a set of common principles, including a shared recognition that there is no military solution to the region’s” conflicts.

Regarding the war in Yemen, where the UK has both supported the Saudi -led coalition and been involved in brokering talks, the GCC-UK statement reiterated demands that the conflict be resolved according to the GCC Initiative and UN Security Council resolutions, and “urged the Yemeni parties to engage with the UN in good faith” and adhere to the failed temporary truce agreed to in April.

Both sides said they would work together to rebuild Yemen after a political settlement is reached.

The communique laid out a lengthy list of areas where the two sides pledged to work together more closely – the UK both with the bloc and unilaterally – on security, counter-terrorism, cyber security and defence more broadly.

The sides pledged to enhance training and military cooperation through exercises “that would develop GCC defence capacity, capability and interoperability, including for humanitarian and peace support operations”, as well as maritime and border security.

While the lengthy statement painted the enhanced ties in broad strokes, one concrete detail of closer cooperation was the announcement of a new coordination centre for Britain’s growing military presence throughout the Gulf region based in Dubai, the Regional British Defence Staff.

Britain is already building a new permanent naval base in Bahrain and an army base in Oman.

Ms May attended the summit as part of the UK’s plans to enhance the long-standing military and security relationships with Gulf countries that have become more vital after the vote to leave the European Union.

The emphasis of Ms May’s remarks and the joint statement was on the security relationships that are the key elements of Britain’s ties in the region and which are seen as vital to diversifying economic cooperation, despite increasing criticism in the UK about its support for the Saudi-led campaign in Yemen.

From London’s perspective, the most vital outcome of the summit will have been economic, as its trade ties to the Gulf have become increasingly important after the vote to leave the European Union.

Britain’s relationships that date back hundreds of years to its era of empire “east of the Suez” are seen as especially crucial now that it has left the EU, both to demonstrate that it is still a global player and to offset the economic fallout.

Ms May announced Britain’s plans to help with aviation security in the Gulf as well as for new five-year multiple-entry visas for UK businesspeople working in Saudi Arabia.

“I want these talks to pave the way for an ambitious trade arrangement,” she said.

In the joint statement itself, the two sides did not announce new trade deals, but put forth a framework for building “on their long-standing cooperation to unlock the full potential for their trade and investment relationship”.

“We will make it a priority, when the UK leaves the European Union, to build the closest possible commercial and economic relationship, and even more closely with business to promote actively GCC-UK economic engagement beyond current levels,” it said. “We will work to understand and remove barriers to trade and investment, and to create the conditions under which trade and investment can flourish, empowering and enhancing the lives of our citizens.”