UK-Gulf Relations: Changes After 200 Years of Consistency


Relations between the UK and Gulf states is a topic which receives much media focus, but is rarely properly understood. This interest is unsurprising given that the region is now one of Britain’s largest non-EU economic partners. Trade increased by 185% with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) between 1999 and 2015, making it a larger trade partner than China or India at the time.[1] Looking forward, this economic relationship is set only to grow: International Trade secretary Liam Fox announced in a 2017 speech that the government has “infrastructure plans [which] include over £300 billion worth of investment by 2020 / 2021” in the Gulf.[2]

Yet it is often the controversies surrounding this relationship which attract the most media attention. Many in the UK question and criticise why our government develops ties with countries accused of funding terrorism, sells arms to those engaged in the atrocious Yemeni civil war, and engages with societies with poor human rights records. Recent seemingly inexplicable actions have left commentators struggling to rationalise Gulf behaviour: the ruthless bombardment of Yemen; the alleged abduction and forced resignation of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri by Saudi Arabia; journalist Khashoggi’s (very probable) murder by the Saudi government; British citizen Matthew Hedges’ imprisonment in Dubai.

But this confusion is the consequence of looking at individual events in isolation from the wider, long-term UK-Gulf relationship, which has in fact followed a remarkably consistent, mutually beneficial path since the 19th century: one of British economic security and prosperity in return for protecting and legitimising the regional rulers whom they helped to establish and subsequently propped up. Even after Britain’s colonial withdrawal was completed in the 1970s, this economic-security transaction continued to develop.

As the UK’s pay-out from this relationship increases, so does the economic importance of maintaining it. There is therefore a power dynamic inherent in the nature of UK-Gulf relations, and it is a shift in this which has been integral to recent actions on both sides. In short, the Gulf states now have more leverage, as developments both within and without the Middle East have simultaneously increased the importance of this relationship for the UK, and enabled their regional allies to pursue more independent minded, at times even contrary, policies. These may often prove misjudged – most recently illustrated by the Hedges fiasco – but it is the fact of their very occurrence which portrays the historic shift in UK-Gulf relations which we are now witnessing.

Early UK-Gulf Relations: A Promising Start

The British Empire’s initial involvement in the Gulf was necessitated by the protection of the shipping lanes between Bombay and Basra, and the East India Company’s trade with Iraq, Iran and Oman. At the turn of the 19th century, Arabs from the lower Gulf began raiding and demanding maritime tolls from British ships, compelling the local colonial governments to blockade the Arabs’ dhows and impose an anti-piracy treaty on the region.

Rather than resisting this encroaching imperial oversight, local rulers viewed it as an opportunity to bolster their own security by appealing to the British directly for protection. This social contract between protector and protected was deep rooted in the Gulf – having dictated prior relationships with the Ottoman and Persian overlords – and so was seen as a vital safety and stability structure in a tribal society. This tradition would form the essence of the Pax Britannica, which ultimately saw Britain accept invitations to assume responsibility for the defence of Oman in 1829, the Trucial States in 1835, Bahrain in 1861, Kuwait in 1899, and Qatar in 1916.

Dr James Onley of the University of Exeter has written convincingly on the consensual nature of these early UK-Gulf relations, as “the collaborative relationship was the reason for the success and longevity of the Pax Britannica in the Gulf”.[3] Britain provided legitimacy and security, with 98 requests for protection between 1805 and 1861, and in return the shipping lanes between key colonial ports were not endangered. A UK-Gulf relationship founded upon trade and security was therefore established.

Even when oil was discovered, and the nature of Britain’s involvement in the Gulf arguably became more exploitative than symbiotic, the core relationship of economic gain in return for protection remained unchanged. In 1935, Qatar granted a British company an oil concession when the colonial Government of India agreed to defend the protectorate. Additional military assistance in return for increasing economic benefit occurred throughout the region right up until Britain began its colonial withdrawal process in the 50s.

It is as a continuation of this trend that existing and future arms and trade deals must be seen. Since the beginning, the UK’s engagement with the Gulf has unwaveringly revolved around economic interests. The fact that the British arms industry has grown prolifically (as a means of maintaining some global military clout after the collapse of the empire) permits an even closer alignment in UK-Gulf interests; they need weapons to survive as independent states in a region embroiled in conflict, and we need a reliable, legal marketplace.

Issues regarding non-state themes and actors – whether that be human rights, war crime accusations, the poor treatment of citizens of other countries – are only addressed until the point that they might jeopardise the fundamental pillars of relations with the Gulf. This policy reality was concisely admitted during the BBC documentary Inside the Foreign Office, Sir Simon MacDonald: “One way of looking at our history is that the UK has been active in the world to make the world a safe place for Britain to do business”. [4] Over 200 years, our approach to the Gulf has remained true to this.

A Shifting Geopolitical Landscape

It is behaviour from the other side which has in fact changed, revealing an unprecedented shift in the balance of this arrangement. As we have seen, the relationship was always tilted in favour of Britain, even if Gulf rulers were consensual and aware of this. This, combined with the Gulf’s lack of appetite to do anything but conform to western policy towards the wider region, maintained the status quo of a mutually beneficial but lopsided power dynamic.

This has now changed for several reasons. Firstly, the UK’s ever-increasing inflow of Gulf money has taken on a new level of significance after Brexit, as it pursues the economic diversification away from reliance on the EU of a “Global Britain”. This comes on top of a gradual decline in the UK’s direct influence over its former protectorates since withdrawing, as the US continues to replace it as the western power with most thrust in the region. The inexectiveness of Britain’s attempt to act as mediator in the Qatari blockade crisis attests to this.

Secondly, the West’s collaborative Middle Eastern policy has been led down a path of heightened reliance on its Gulf allies by President Trump, as he has reversed the rapprochement with the Sunni states’ bête noire, Shi’a Iran. This provides the Gulf bloc with a sense of security that, even if they step out of line and act contrary to wishes, their western allies have little choice but to back them, or risk losing any control over the volatile yet crucial region’s developments. In the words of President Trump, when finally forced to acknowledge the Saudi role in Khashoggi’s death, Saudi Arabia is “a great ally in our very important fight against Iran, The United States intends to remain a steadfast partner of Saudi Arabia to ensure the interests of our country”.[5]

Thus a situation has arisen in which the Gulf states have more room to act independently, and have begun doing so
under Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman’s command. Involvement in Yemen’s civil war and the blockading of Qatar should both be seen as attempts to enforce Gulf presence in the region (especially vis-à-vis Iran’s perceived aggression), and cases like Hariri and Hedges as calculated ploys to portray themselves as unafraid of tough action and consequent international condemnation. These resemble a significant increase in risk-taking and, regardless of whether or not we view them as miscalculated and rash, it is a striking change for a region which spent 200 years relying upon external protection and guidance.


Since the 1800s, Britain and the Gulf region have maintained an exective relationship based on economic opportunity and security. The degree of equity may have varied, but it has nonetheless remained consensual and satisfactory for the governing bodies of both parties, and until recently, neither sought to alter the power dynamic in any meaningful way. As the UK’s influence and leverage has decreased, however, a new hawkish strand of Gulf leadership is taking advantage of this to embark upon courses of action of their own accord. It remains to be seen whether this assertiveness is temporary, and how far it can be pushed.


[1] Tasker, R. (2017) “UK-GCC trade deal would be beneficial,”  Available at:
[2] UK Government, “Unlocking the full potential of the UK-GCC trade and investment relationship,” Available from:
[3] Onley, J. (2009). Britain and the Gulf Shaikhdoms, 1951-1961: A Study in the Changing Nature of British Imperial Influence. Available from:
[4] Inside the Foreign Oyce, BBC Two, 2017.
[5] Seiger, T. (2018)

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