British public want strong ties with Middle East, poll shows

Relationship with the Gulf has become a greater priority in the past decade

The Deltapoll findings come more than a decade after the UK government began deepening its ties with the Gulf. Photo: Wam
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The British public want the UK to keep a strong relationship with Arab nations, according to an exclusive poll commissioned by The National.

The Deltapoll findings come more than a decade after the UK government began deepening its ties with the Gulf, in particular.

Thirty-one per cent of the survey’s 2,096 respondents said the UK should cultivate a stronger relationship with the Arab world and 31 per cent said relations should stay as they are.

That compared with 17 per cent who thought ties should become weaker, while 22 per cent had no opinion.

Dr David Roberts, an associate professor in the defence studies department of King’s College London, said the UK’s ties with the region had improved since David Cameron took office as UK prime minister in 2010.

Quote
During the Tony Blair and Gordon Brown era Britain was comparatively disengaged. The Gulf was not seen as a priority. With Cameron there was a feeling Britain had a significant legacy. There’s a lot of desire on both sides to build on that
Dr David Roberts, King’s College London

The centre of this relationship is, he said, the “defence-economic nexus”.

“During the Tony Blair and Gordon Brown era … Britain was comparatively disengaged. The Gulf was not seen as a priority,” Dr Roberts said, referring to Britain's Labour prime ministers from 1997 to 2010.

“A Conservative government came in with Cameron and there was a feeling Britain had a significant legacy, particularly in the Gulf. There’s certainly a lot of desire on both sides to build on that,” he said.

Other findings in the wide-ranging exclusive poll

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Dr Roberts, who is the author of a forthcoming book, Security Politics in the Gulf Monarchies, said it was difficult to highlight anything specific as being Boris Johnson’s legacy in UK-Middle East relations.

“He was part of a series of leaders in recent years, since probably David Cameron, who have increasingly focused on Britain’s relations with the Gulf and the Middle East more generally. He’s part of the trend of greater engagement,” he said.

“As for Liz Truss, I suppose she will continue with the trend to deepen engagement quite considerably. What levers she has I’m not quite sure, but I would imagine she would be keen for trade associations.”

The UK opened a permanent naval base in Bahrain in 2018 and, in the same year, inaugurated its UK Joint Logistics Support Base in Oman.

King Charles III, who took the throne this month, has a strong interest in the region, in Islam and the Arabic language, and has strong friendships with a number of the Gulf monarchies.

That interest and friendship is expected to remain strong as he serves as head of state.

The British focus on the Gulf comes at time when, Dr Roberts said, the centre of gravity of power and influence in the Middle East is continuing to shift.

'Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Riyadh now Middle East capitals'

Operation Telic: British Forces In Iraq, 2003, At Bridge Four on the outskirts of Basra, a soldier of 1st Battalion, The Irish Guards looks for possible Iraqi enemy positions as Royal Engineer technicians prepare to cap one of the burning oil wells within the city of Basra, 3 April 2003. (Photo by Giles Penfound/ Crown Copyright. Imperial War Museums via Getty Images)

“My sense is that Cairo, Damascus and Baghdad are increasingly less influential,” he said.

“[Now] we keep hearing about Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Riyadh, maybe Doha as well. The Gulf monarchies are coming to the fore and Dubai is central to that.”

Some of the tensions that may have made the British public wary of the Middle East have receded, suggested Dr Roberts, who made reference to another militant group, Daesh, also known as ISIS, which emerged a decade after the Iraq war and centred its activity in western Iraq and eastern Syria.

“Thankfully in recent years the Daesh movement in Syria and Iraq has died down, and the carnage of Iraq has died down, the carnage of Syria has died down, at least from a British perspective,” he said.

Looking at views in the opposite direction, Dr Roberts said the UK’s role in the highly controversial Iraq war, while not forgotten in the Middle East, had “increasingly fallen into the near past”.

“In the states, at elite levels, they’re keen to look forward a little bit more,” he said.

Updated: September 26, 2022, 7:53 PM
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