Foreign AffairsSupplementary written evidence from Chris Doyle Caabu

This note is to supplement the oral evidence I gave on 29 January 2013. It represents the personal views of the author.

Key Points

The UK RELATIONSHIP WITH GULF is massively important to us but it has to be managed in increasingly tough circumstances.

REGIONAL CHANGE: Huge changes in region have caused regional and Gulf unease. After the downfall of Mubarak, many states are nervous that the West will abandon them, in particular the US. They want reassurance from UK.

DECLINE OF US INFLUENCE: The decline of US influence in the region has had implications. It is a declining influence but is still crucial. Other powers also matter. All Gulf states remain key policy partners.

NO LONGER ISOLATED: Gulf countries cannot remain immune to regional trends—they are not as isolated as they were in the past.

YOUTH: Young people form the majority of the population, but there are not enough jobs; the region has double the global level of unemployment.

OPPOSITION GROUPS ASSERTIVE: There is an increased confidence and assertiveness from opposition groups.

RADICALISATION: Some opposition has radicalised, partially owing to increased frustration at lack of reform.

SECTARIANISM: Sunni-Shia issue has become a major fault line. This affects most northern Gulf States.

CRITICISM: How do regimes and political figures get more accustomed to criticism? They are not used to this and it is culturally alien. How can opposition be effective, build consensus, and be non-violent?

CONSTRUCTIVE ENGAGEMENT: Britain should not hesitate to deliver strong messages but in the most constructive way possible.

ANY CONFLICT WITH IRAN would have major implications.

Why does the Gulf matter to Britain?

The British relationship with the Gulf is historical and of major national interest. Britain has a remarkable status in the Gulf. It can be argued that we punch above our weight.

Britain ruled and dominated the Gulf. Indeed there are many in the Gulf who still feel let down at the way in which Britain left—or in their eyes ‘abandoned’—the Gulf in 1971.

But now the relationship is heading the other way, where we increasingly need them more than they need us. They have alternative options, other states willing to fulfil similar roles. The question is—does the UK have alternatives?

There is massive competition from other states. The GCC has developed successful links with new markets and other states may not be so vocal about democracy, corruption and human rights. For this and other reasons, we have constantly to work on the relationship and should never take it for granted.

In Britain, the new generation of politicians and diplomats are less familiar with the Gulf and has less access to the rulers than in the past. Britain has to adapt to losing that in-depth diplomatic experience we once had.

Given that Britain is seen as closely allied to the US, the decline of Washington’s influence in the region will surely affect Britain’s standing. Arab states routinely hope that Britain and other European partners will act as a moderating influence on the US. However, in the last decade it has been regional powers such as Turkey, Saudi and Iran that have been increasingly calling the shots and acting independently. The new Egyptian leadership appears to be doing likewise.

The UK-Gulf relationship has benefited from increased ministerial visits, especially the Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary. The Gulf Initiative that started in summer of 2010 has clearly been helpful. It has understandably emphasised the importance of the human relations rather than institutional links. The fact that many ministers dealing with the region have not changed since 2010 has lent consistency to these personal relationships and allowed them to develop. Pre-2010, it was a frequent comment from Gulf ministers that they barely got to know one British minister before he or she was changed. Personal long-term relations matter in the Gulf.

The Foreign Office will claim, perhaps with some merit, that great ministerial involvement will allow tougher messages to be delivered.

All the states agree that criticism is best done in private (this is true of any state—nobody likes to be criticised in public). However, it is vital that Britain act as a candid friend giving sound advice in the interests of our friends as well as UK’s. We must be realistic as to whether we will be listened to but the point must be made that lack of reforms and major human rights abuses have consequences, most of all for the states themselves. Positive change when it happens must clearly be encouraged.

The use of lethal force against peaceful protesters also arouses huge anger. If nothing else this at least must be a red line in terms of how Britain reacts. Any government anywhere in the world that deliberately targets innocent civilians should know that normal relations cannot follow. It is noticeable that across the Middle East, those governments that deployed lethal force against their own people in 2010–2012 got themselves into the biggest trouble with their own people. Those that took greater care as in Jordan and Morocco have succeeded in calming the protests they faced. This is a message that should be continually repeated to our friends by British politicians.

Image of the Gulf

The rulers and the people of the Gulf tend to know Britain, its people and culture better then we know them.

In Britain, there is a lack of understanding of the differences in Gulf states. There are also many who still subscribe to tired stereotypes of camels and see the Gulf solely as a large gas station. One of the reasons why at times the Gulf is misunderstood is both a reluctance to let journalists in, combined with a reluctance of some media to cover the Gulf because the politics of oil—whilst important—does not sell. Several journalists have acknowledged this to me. Nevertheless, if Gulf States wish to be covered fairly then there should be consideration to improving access to journalists and relying less on public relations firms.

Frequently there is a media focus on issues that are presumed to be vital such as women being able to drive in Saudi Arabia, yet Saudi women typically point to other broader issues of concern. A significant change has been Qatar, which has moved from being a country that most Britons knew nothing about even ten years ago to one that now arouses huge interest.

The agenda of the huge Gulf Sovereign Wealth Funds arouse suspicion not least in the media. More can be done to explain the benefits to Britain of such investment by all parties.

The image of the Gulf is also affected by differing approaches to issues of public morality. The Gulf is a very conservative society. There have been “kissing” incidents in the Emirates for example, involving UK citizens. Emiratis despair of what they consider inappropriate behaviour while visitors feel that the punishments are too harsh and the local customs had not been made clear. Is enough being done to ensure that British visitors do not fall foul of this? Are the mechanisms for sorting out such issues working?

Above all, the image of the Gulf is damaged by the clear abuses of human rights. Those states that carry out public beheadings, flogging and amputation of limbs will rightly only attract negative reactions.

Image of the UK in the Gulf

Britain still has a largely positive image with the Gulf. Many Gulf Arabs visit Britain, want to study and even work here. There is admiration for our brands and a residual sense of British fair play. However, my impression in talking at schools in the Gulf is that we are not known for our modern design expertise or cultural scene, and more can be done to challenge this stereotype.

Some public relations firms, including ones based in the UK, have also attracted criticism principally from Bahrainis. All too often the hired defenders have become the story. They cause resentment amongst much of the broader population at the huge costs expended that has little obvious to the people themselves.

Another issue that has been raised with me is that conservative Gulf Arabs do look at the West as being somewhat immoral, lax and sex-obsessed. At one girls school in Ras El Khaimah (UAE) they were amazed about Page 3 of the Sun and how semi-nudity could be permitted in our papers. Hence, whilst overall it is positive that Gulf students come to Britain to study, it can also reinforce negative feelings about Britain. Some have told me they do suffer culture shock here. I would question whether there is enough done to prepare them for this.


The visa system is also a consistent irritant for Gulf nationals. UK visas are expensive and for many take too long to process. It is a frequent complaint that there is no reciprocal visa policy.

Migrant Workers in Gulf

This is a huge issue in every state of the GCC, where many of the states have a majority of workers from abroad. As more and more workers from Asia and elsewhere have gone to the Gulf, their treatment has attracted greater focus. There should be a frank dialogue with our friends in the Gulf as to how their work and living conditions can be improved and why it is in the interests of all parties. It is noticeable that the US makes more of an issue of this, so perhaps Britain could make more joint representations.

Use of Arabic

I fully support those that argue that Arabic is an essential tool for British diplomats in the region. An understanding of the language helps British officials to understand grassroots movements, youth, and the marginalised as well as follow the increasing volume of social media in Arabic.

Arabic language training should be encouraged. Top level posts in Arab countries should go to Arabists. Will young upcoming FCO civil servants study Arabic if there are no Arabic posts as Ambassador? At present, most GCC ambassadorial positions are not filled by Arabists.

The study of Arabic should be viewed far more positively. Camel corps and going native are seen as extremely offensive by many Arabists. Does anyone object to a French speaker being Ambassador in Paris or a Mandarin speaker in Beijing?

Change in the Gulf

All the GCC states have undergone rapid and deep-rooted changes in the last half a century or more. Such changes are ongoing and British government must keep abreast of them. The changes that may be the hardest to judge will be how far some people from the Gulf have radicalised, the growth of identity politics and the attitudes amongst youth. It should be remembered that some surveys show that the Gulf population will double in the next 30 years.

It is clear that the foreign policies of all GCC states will reflect more the wishes of the people, as public opinion in the region becomes a more powerful force. Rulers and elites are far more aware of this. The GCC positions on Syria were in part influenced by huge outrage amongst the local population. For this reason it is even more important to follow closely public opinion and different sectors of society.

I would ask how able the UK is to predict major seismic changes in any place in the Gulf. How sophisticated are our warning mechanisms? Are they any better than in North Africa in 2010–11 or indeed in Iran in 1979? Moreover is there as Sir Anthony Parsons suggested over Iran in 1979, a failure of imagination to conceive of the Arabian peninsula without the House of Saud? Though this may not be likely one wonders what risk assessment has been made of this.

The regional issues

The Gulf is also very much affected by its regional environment. Any conflict with Iran whether launched by Israel and/or the US would have huge implications long after any conflict was over. It would also impact on Britain massively, not least on how to repatriate 160,000 nationals in the Emirates alone or at least secure their safety.

Other regional crises also have their repercussions, not least Iraq, Syria and Palestine. Overall, the international community has had a lamentable record in conflict resolution in recent years in the region and great investment of time, energy and resources for this are critical.

15 February 2013

Prepared 19th November 2013