PM Cameron has begun a diplomatic tour to patch up relations with the Gulf with a billion-dollar arms deal on the cards. He has minimized press coverage of the trip amidst accusations Britain is arming countries with debatable human rights records.
During the tour Cameron will seek to revive relations with both Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) where the UK has significant business interests in the oil industry. In addition, Britain will also seek to peddle 100 Typhoon fighter jets to both nations in a deal worth a potential US$10 billion.
The UK PM faces stiff competition, with French President Francois Holland also in the region to sell defense equipment.
Despite the minimized press presence accompanying the PM, Downing Street has said they are in no way trying to hush up coverage.
"This is not a secretive trip in any shape or form. We have the media traveling on the plane with the prime minister – they will have access to the events he is doing in country,” said a Downing Street spokesperson.
The British government has stated that the motive behind the trip is “to work together with the Gulf countries towards a future that is rich in prosperity, strong in defense and open in its handling and pursuit of political and economic reform.”
However, in the wake of the Arab Spring, ties with Saudi Arabia and the UAE have been put under strain with both countries being targeted for their questionable human rights policies and authoritarian governments.
The UK’s significant financial dealings with the region, worth around $27 billion according to UK newspaper The Guardian, are also on the rocks. Saudi Arabia has warned that if the UK shows support for anti-regime groups pushing for government reform it will begin courting Asian markets with lucrative trade deals.
The UK government has come under increasing pressure from human rights groups to use its influence with UAE and Saudi Arabia to push for reform. Nevertheless, Britain has been reluctant to vocalize any criticism for fear of endangering economic ties with the Gulf nations.
Saudi Arabia ‘insulted’ by UK
The trip comes after Saudi representative said that they felt insulted by a UK parliamentary review of relations with Saudi Arabia and its neighbor Bahrain, which has been undergoing significant social upheaval against the country’s Sunni monarchy.
Enraged Saudi officials told the BBC that they were "re-evaluating their country's historic relations with Britain,” adding they would rule nothing out.
The parliamentary inquiry followed a report on the Arab Spring which said that the UK should "support peaceful reform efforts where possible in Bahrain," but that it "must also be clear in its public criticism of human rights violations there if it is to avoid charges of hypocrisy."
Saudi Arabia has shown open support for Bahrain’s Sunni monarchy, lending 1,000 troops last year to quash a pro-democracy movement.
The Saudi Arabian monarchy implicates Iran in having a hand in the unrest currently engulfing Bahrain and also accuses it of triggering a Shiite uprising on its own territory.
The currently international nuclear conflict with Iran is also expected to be high on the agenda during Cameron’s visit. In the case of a severe deterioration in relations with Tehran, British media have speculated the UK might base fighter jets in the UAE for a possible strike on the country.
The US, along with other Western countries, has accused Tehran of enriching uranium for the purposes of building nuclear weapons and have sought to allay progress by slamming sanctions on Iran.
Iran, for its part, maintains its atomic research is purely for civilians ends and denies claims it is developing weapons.