As the recent French arms contract to the UAE has demonstrated, traditional methods of shaping state influence and forging strategic partnerships is still very much a tool of foreign policy.
Here, the UK should look to the French example a little more closely, particularly as Global Britain is set to become more deployed across the Middle East.
This article was submitted by Robert Clark, an Associate Defence Fellow at the Henry Jackson Society in London. Prior to this, he served in the British Army for 13 years, including tours of Iraq and Afghanistan. Will Meddings is the Commanding Officer of the Long Range Reconnaissance group. A British Army officer in the Royal Anglian Regiment, he has experience of operations in Iraq, Afghanistan and across Africa.
This article is the opinion of the author and not necessarily that of the UK Defence Journal. If you would like to submit your own article on this topic or any other, please see our submission guidelines.
Last week’s £18bn sale to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) of the French Rafale warplane represents France’s largest overseas export of its flagship fighter jet, simultaneously guaranteeing thousands of French jobs for the next decade, and deepening strategic ties between Paris and the Emirates.
Crafted in the aftermath of the AUKUS agreement, this decision explores other ways in which geopolitical influence can be achieved in a region still deeply intrinsic to a nation’s foreign policy agenda.
Britain can take an example in this instance from the French; the traditional power still at play through conventional arms sales to friendly nations who remain very much in our national security agenda.
It won’t for instance be lost on General Dynamic UK the potential export value for the ongoing Ajax programme, should it come to fruition; the export market to the Middle East in particular will be front and centre of their strategic thinking regarding long-term sales – particularly in light of increasing programme costs.
The French have also been a strong ally of Britain’s in the ongoing threats faced to both countries from global Islamist terrorism; particularly across northern Africa and the Middle East. The UAE are a natural strategic partner for both powers; a large defence budget, a modernised military, and allies of mutually friendly nations across the region.
Britain also shares a common regional adversary with the UAE; the Islamic Republic of Iran. Iranian sponsored proxies, in particular the Houthis, repeatedly threaten Emirati security. This includes the Houthi attacks on a Saudi airbase in 2015, resulting in 52 killed Emirati troops, and Iranian-supplied Houthi drone attacks of Emirati airports.
In the decade preceding 2017, the UK had only exported £887 million worth of military goods to the UAE. Whilst traditionally Britain exports heavily to the region, recently around 60 per cent of its annual £110bn arms exports, the UAE has been somewhat overlooked.
This was followed by the UK’s decision in June 2019 to ban all new arms sales to the UAE after a lengthy court battle with the Court of Appeal. This has subsequently and quite rightly been lifted to aid the Saudi-led coalition fighting against the Iranian supplied and controlled Houthi rebels. Despite this, arms sales took a dramatic dip in 2019-20 to the Gulf region, and to the UAE in particular.
However, with the normalisation of ties being established between Israel and the Emirates signed in September 2020, many believe that this will result in large-scale arms transfers between the two strong British allies – in particular as they face down the common threat to their security: Tehran.
This brings us to Global Britain: a historically strong ally to the Emirates, with a majority of its arms export market already located in the Gulf region. British forces will now be more heavily deployed to certain key forward areas: Duqm in Oman is one such base. Here, British battlegroups will spend up to four months a year exercising alongside their Omani and other regional allies; likely to include Emirati troops as they train against shared adversarial threats.
Britain is now in a prime position, with new defence procurement programmes becoming operationalised in the next few years, and a new long-term forward presence in the Gulf to train alongside allied nations, to deepen relationships based on an advanced arms exports market and thus deepening strategic partnerships.
After declining arms sales over the last two years, the UAE is a prime partner for such a twin-tracked approach to strengthening strategic partnerships with crucial regional allies, increasing security for both Britain, and also its partners. This is what Global Britain needs to aspire to.