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May 1, 2013 11:40 pm
Over the past three years, David Cameron has forged a foreign policy that is committed to boosting the UK’s export performance in tough economic times.
Yet Mr Cameron has also been keen to underscore another area of policy that sometimes runs counter to trade promotion: the need to speak frankly about human rights abuses in other states, especially in the Middle East.
With Britain this week hosting the president of the United Arab Emirates on a state visit, the difficulty of managing these contrasting policy approaches has been all too apparent.
The prime minister on Wednesday hailed the trade benefits of the UK’s relationship with the UAE, highlighting how Anglo-Dutch company Shell won a multibillion pound deal to develop a gas field with the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company.
However, at a meeting with Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed al-Nahyan, the UAE president, he also pressed for a “proper, independent investigation” into claims that three Britons were tortured by police in Dubai.
Mr Cameron has sharpened his tone on human rights since facing criticism in 2011 for leading a trade mission with UK defence companies to the Gulf early in the Arab uprising. One Labour MP said the visit showed “insensitivity and crassness of a high order”.
The prime minister has since appeared more willing to raise human rights issues with foreign governments, even if it adversely affects UK trade.
The most striking example has been in relations with China. Last May, Mr Cameron met the Dalai Lama, Tibet’s spiritual leader and a figure reviled by the Chinese leadership. As a result, the UK, unlike France and Germany, has since had few top-level political meetings with the Chinese leadership.
A key question is whether Mr Cameron’s twin-track approach – banging the drum for business while also raising tricky human rights issues – is coherent and works.
A senior Whitehall official said it did. “The more broad based and deep your relations are with authoritarian states, the more scope there is for your voice to be heard on issues that those governments don’t want to discuss,” he said.
At the same time, there is plenty of evidence to show that shifting to an extreme position lands governments in difficulties. Robin Cook began as Labour foreign secretary in 1997 by saying the UK would pursue an “ethical” foreign policy, prioritising human rights over trade. The idea was deemed unworkable and had to be abandoned.
Jonathan Eyal of the Royal United Services Institute, a think-tank, believes the Arab uprising has created acute difficulties for Mr Cameron,
“When the Arab spring broke out, there was a strong view that the Middle East was splitting into democratic states that we need to support and authoritarian ones that we needed to shun,” he says. “That’s why Cameron faced so much criticism when he visited the Gulf states in early 2011.”
Mr Eyal believes the Arab uprising is now in a complex phase which makes it harder to criticise UK foreign policy on ethical grounds.
“Suddenly, it is getting a lot harder to be optimistic about states like Tunisia, Libya or Egypt moving down a democratic path. That makes it politically easier for the UK to retain contacts with states like the UAE, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia than might otherwise have been the case.”
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