David Cameron in the Gulf: Defence sales 'legitimate'

David Cameron answers questions from a student about human rights and women's rights

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David Cameron has pledged to raise human rights as he arrived in the Gulf on a trip to strengthen the UK's defence, security and commercial ties.

He said there would be no "no-go areas" but discussions would take place showing "respect and friendship".

Britain is looking to sell Typhoon jets to Dubai and Saudi Arabia, despite allegations of human rights abuses.

Mr Cameron said countries had a right to self-defence and promoting UK business was "completely legitimate".

The prime minister is hoping to increase defence co-operation with the United Arab Emirates, including contingency plans for the possible basing of RAF warplanes if conflict erupts with Iran, says BBC security correspondent Frank Gardner.

'Respect and friendship'

He added that Mr Cameron's visit came amid signs of strained relations with Gulf states. His Arab hosts, while publicly welcoming the prime minister, have their own issues they want to address with him.

They have told the BBC that in the wake of the Arab Spring they worry Britain risks confusing democracy and human rights movements with revolutionaries who, they say, want to replace the current monarchies with Islamic republics.

Analysis

David Cameron's Gulf trip this week goes to the heart of the government's dilemma over how to deal with the Arab Gulf states in the wake of the Arab Spring.

Britain has huge business and defence sales interests in the UAE and Saudi. No 10 says it hopes to boost annual bilateral trade with the UAE to £15bn (US$23bn) by 2015.

The Foreign Office also sees both countries as vital strategic partners in confronting Iranian power in the region and there is talk of building a long-term defence partnership with Abu Dhabi.

But the overthrow of unpopular Arab regimes elsewhere last year has energised public debate about how the Gulf states are ruled.

Even here in tranquil UAE, a small but growing number of anti-government activists have been imprisoned, a move condemned by the EU.

Mr Cameron knows he must raise the thorny issue of human rights with his hosts. He also knows that if he pushes too hard then Britain risks losing major contracts to countries that ask no questions.

They have hinted that Britain risks losing out on major contracts in future, but human rights groups want the British government to put more pressure on Gulf rulers to speed up democratic reforms.

Both the UAE and Saudi Arabia have been criticised for alleged abuses, but they have rejected these criticisms.

They have warned that if Britain continues to support calls for reform prompted by anti-government activists they will increasingly give lucrative deals to Asian partners instead.

Speaking in Dubai, Mr Cameron said: "On human rights, there are no no-go areas in this relationship.

"We discuss all of these things but we also show respect and friendship to a very old ally and partner.

"We have one of the strictest regimes anywhere in the world for sales of defence equipment but we do believe that countries have a right to self-defence and we do believe that Britain has important defence industries that employ over 300,000 people so that sort of business is completely legitimate and right."

It is Mr Cameron's second visit to the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia as prime minister.

No 10 says the UK is looking to sell about 100 Typhoon jets to the UAE and Saudi Arabia as well as building closer defence and security ties.

'Global economic race'

A number of RAF Typhoons are already in the UAE for a joint training session.

The prime minister is expected to push for the UAE to buy 60 of BAE's Typhoon jets in a deal worth £3bn, which would secure thousands of jobs in the UK.

David Cameron's phone ringing provided a light moment during the Q&A

He said British exports to the country were up 16% in the first half of the year and it was vital to be involved in the fastest-growing economies in the world to compete in the "global economic race".

The Gulf region's economies have been growing much more strongly than the UK's and other European countries, and the Foreign Office wants the UK to be "the Gulf's commercial partner of choice".

"It is not just about trade and investment," the prime minister said.

"We are also partners in defence and security, we worked together in Libya and Afghanistan and we will be talking about all the key regional and global issues."

Differing economic growth rates

  • The UK economy is forecast to grow by 1.1% in 2013
  • The euro area economy is forecast to grow by 0.2% in 2013
  • The Saudi Arabian economy is forecast to grow by 4.2% and the UAE's by 2.6% in 2013

Source: IMF's economic outlook

The UAE air force is shopping around for new planes to replace its ageing fleet of F-16s and Mirages and the Typhoon is up against the Rafale, made by the French company Dassault.

During a question-and-answer session with students, Mr Cameron also warned that it would be a "desperately bad development for our world" if Iran gained nuclear weapons.

Western governments say the country's uranium-enrichment programme is designed to this end, but the regime insists its aim is to set up civilian power stations,

Mr Cameron said there was the possibility of a "nuclear arms race" across the Middle East, adding: "The message we need to send to Iran is: there is a peaceful path; there is a path you could take that will remove the pariah status from your nation and that is to accept that you could have civil nuclear power but not military nuclear power and then we could have a proper discussion."

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