The fallout from the Arab Uprisings has had unintended consequences for relationships between the West and Gulf monarchies.
The region’s leaders are becoming more anxious that their traditional Western allies are forging new contacts with Muslim Brotherhood movements across the region – without considering the perceived threat they pose to GCC governments. In this febrile environment, the stakes are high; UAE and Saudi diplomats have vented their anger at the UK government in particular, chastising it for allowing criticism over alleged human rights transgressions.
British Prime Minister David Cameron’s recent three-day trip to the Gulf was designed in part to ease rising tensions, while confirming to regional leaders that despite the shifting Middle East and North African political balance, Britain has not forgotten its long-standing connections to the Gulf.
Cameron is also in a quandary; the Gulf is a strategically critical economic partner for UK firms. Britain exports more than $24bn of goods and services annually to the GCC, and for defence contractor BAE Systems – looking to sell more Typhoon fighters to the UAE government – the Gulf is the last line of defence.
London is aware that Gulf leaders are less tolerant of outside criticism, whether from the press or British politicians, who are embarking on parliamentary investigations into British relations with Riyadh and Manama. It cannot afford to rupture essential commercial relationships with either Gulf kingdom.
However, relations between Western democracies and Gulf monarchies will always have their ups and downs, and there is little prospect of a serious rupturing of long-term ties. But, for the likes of UK firms such as BP and BAE, the sense of being used as a pawn in a political bargaining game is potentially damaging. They must hope that Cameron’s emollient political skills can do enough to ensure that commerce is not sacrificed to heightened regional political sensitivities.