Respect and ambition – that sums up UAE/UK relations. These were themes that kept coming across during the two day visit from our Prime Minister David Cameron to the UAE.
This was the Prime Minister’s second visit to the UAE whilst in office – the last time was his first bilateral visit on becoming Prime Minister, which gives a flavour of the priority he gives to this relationship. And I have had the honour of accompanying him on both occasions and seeing first hand how his relationship with the Emirates has grown into an honest and open friendship based on the utmost respect.
Yes we have been friends and allies for forty years and longer; yes we have learned much from each other during that time; but it is the potential for the future as we develop together that is the exciting bit.
This was an ambitious visit, with nine individual meetings and events in four different locations. Clearly the most important elements were meetings with the President HH Sheikh Khalifa Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Prime Minister HH Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum and Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi HH Sheikh Mohammed Bin Zayed Al Nahyan; it is essential to discuss the business of international politics when leaders meet, but I was also struck by how easy the conversations became about shared interests – from horses to planes, and everything in between.
I do not think Mr Cameron had ever appreciated quite what is involved in becoming a world champion in endurance riding. The presence of both the Business and Defence Secretaries really brought home to me the depth and breadth of the relationship. There are many reasons why more than 100,000 British people live here – they like this society, its leadership and its people, they feel safe here and they prosper; I know the Prime Minister got a strong flavour of the enormous warmth towards the British from all his meetings.
I was also delighted the Prime Minister was able to fit in a relaxed ride on the Dubai metro – in the company of HH Sheikh Ahmed Bin Saeed Al Maktoum and HE Mattar Al Tayer. It gave both the Prime Minister and me great pride to see British firms Atkins and Serco contributing to the building and running of the metro – illustrating the best of British innovation, design and delivery.
This took them to the Dubai World Trade Centre where the Big5 Construction Exhibition was taking place. Here, and at several other points in the visit, the Prime Minister spoke with a wide selection of the large British business and wider community in the UAE and he was thankful to our hosts for the warmth with which the Emirates have embraced them all.
My personal highlight?
The moment when the Prime Minister threw me his phone when it went off during his invigorating question and answer session with students at the spectacular new Abu Dhabi campus of Zayed University – apparently the look on my face as I nearly dropped it onto the lap of a very senior Emirati sitting next to me will be used on diplomatic training courses for years to come.
The Prime Minister really enjoyed the chance to meet and interact with a wide range of Emirati students on a full range of issues. They were tough in the questions they asked – but then, doing this trip, he was missing Prime Minister’s Question time in the UK this week, so that was fair enough.
It was clear from the energy and enthusiasm of the students that the bilateral relationship we are celebrating is not limited to government to government but absolutely about the people to people and student to student bonds. What came across really strongly was the appetite to keep sharing thoughts and ideas and to have – in the Prime Minister’s own words – ‘no no-go areas’.
We put innovation at the heart of a fantastic session chaired by the Prime Minister and His Highness the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, which looked at possibilities for further collaboration in hi-tech sectors from aviation to health and defence, the outcome of which is reflected in a joint communiqué. The communiqué neatly captures the sense of partnership and respect that binds this most unique and long standing partnership for now, but for future generations. And the words of HH Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed at the end of the visit was the perfect sum of where we are in this partnership and where we want to be:
“The Prime Minister’s visit is further recognition of the vast potential for the bi-lateral relationship at every level. There is clearly a common sentiment that our deep historic ties can evolve to become an alliance for the future that continuously benefits both countries. Ours can be a partnership based on the closest possible political, economic, and defence collaboration.”
Watch this space…