The British minister made a secret trip to the UAE after relations soured

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British Deputy Prime Minister Oliver Dowden made a secret trip to the United Arab Emirates last week in an attempt to repair a diplomatic relationship that has deteriorated to its worst state in years.

His visit, which came before traveling with an official delegation to Saudi Arabia, followed growing frustration from Emirati officials over comments from British politicians about a blocked bid for the UAE to buy the Telegraph.

The relationship has also been further damaged by an alleged recent criticism from the United Nations.

The tensions have arisen as Britain seeks billions of pounds of new investment from the state’s entrenched sovereign wealth funds.

Abu Dhabi is surprised that British domestic politics appear to have surpassed what the UAE considers an important strategic relationship, officials and analysts from both countries said.

Some Emirati officials believe the country has been relegated to a “punching bag” for British politicians seeking to appear tough at home, a person close to the talks between the two nations said.

“This is not anger or frustration,” said a second person with knowledge of the bilateral relationship. “This is exhaustion.”

Senior British politicians have acknowledged that British hostility to the Telegraph deal has soured ties between the two nations.

Kemi Badenoch, Britain’s business and trade secretary, told the Financial Times that politicians are “often careless when it comes to the way they speak about other countries. . . There has probably been a lot said about the UAE that was very undiplomatic. . . There are lessons to be learned about how we can do that better.”

UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan and Lord David Cameron, his British counterpart
UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, left, and Lord David Cameron, his British counterpart © AFP/PA

The pair have close historical ties, including a 2021 deal for the UAE to invest £10 billion in new technologies and energy in Britain.

But officials and analysts on both sides said a series of recent rifts have left ties in their worst state since 2018, when the UAE briefly jailed a British academic on spying charges that Britain strongly denied.

Dowden’s visit, where he met senior Emirati government officials, was the latest salvo in a concerted effort to repair relations. The British Cabinet said Dowden spoke of “deepening and strengthening our diplomatic and investment ties.”

Weeks earlier, British Foreign Secretary Lord David Cameron met his counterpart, Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum meetings in Riyadh.

Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed and Prime Minister Boris Johnson witness the signing of major agreements between the UAE and the UK.  September 2021
Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed and Prime Minister Boris Johnson to witness the signing of key agreements between the UAE and the UK in 2021 © Ministry of Presidential Affairs

The relationship has eroded in recent years. In 2022, the Iran-backed Houthis launched missile and drone attacks near the capital Abu Dhabi. Emirati officials were dismayed when then-Prime Minister Boris Johnson failed to make a public statement of support shortly after the event.

This year, Britain’s ruling Conservative government raised questions about its media record, effectively blocking an Abu Dhabi-backed £600 million takeover of the Telegraph Media Group. The failed bid was backed by Vice President Sheikh Mansour, whose brother is the Gulf state’s ruler, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed. The UAE government was not directly involved in the deal.

A British government figure said there was “nervousness” within Whitehall that blocking the Telegraph deal could further delay a long-awaited trade deal with the Gulf Cooperation Council, which includes the UAE as well as Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

More recently, Britain convened a meeting of the UN Security Council to discuss the ongoing bloody war in Sudan, which has killed more than 15,000 people.

During the meeting, to which the UAE was not invited, a representative of the Sudanese Armed Forces accused the UAE of supporting their opponent, the Rapid Support Forces.

Emirati officials strongly deny the claims of involvement, and Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah spoke directly to Cameron about the incident, according to people with knowledge of their conversations.

Sudan's paramilitary Rapid Support Forces
The UAE has been accused of supporting Sudan’s paramilitary Rapid Support Forces © Umit Bektas/Reuters

The UK Foreign Office said: “The UK has a strong relationship with the UAE and is committed to working closely together on a range of issues.” The UAE Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not respond to a request for comment.

The growing concern about Britain’s behavior comes as the UAE’s global star emerges as an increasingly influential Arab power.

“The United Kingdom has been in the top five, if not the top three, of the UAE’s allies and partners since the founding of the UAE,” said Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, an Emirati political science professor and senior fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School.

“Things have changed in the last fifty years: the UAE is an emerging regional power. . . and Britain is apparently stuck in the past and not realizing there is a new UAE,” he added.

The Daily Telegraph newspaper for sale on a newsstand
British political sentiment about the UAE surrounding a bid from the Telegraph news group helped damage relations © José Sarmento Matos/Bloomberg

The pair continue to work on Gaza, energy and climate issues, and the relationship has seen difficult times before.

But some analysts said Britain needed to repent this time.

“The UK needs to understand that when the UAE is angry, you have to take the UAE seriously,” Abdulla said. “Maybe it’s time for Britain to visit us and say sorry.”

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