The Royal Air Force’s participation in a military exercise in the Middle East did not go unnoticed. They joined the US Air Force, Israeli Air Force, Emirates Air Force, and other air forces in military exercises. It was another episode in a long history of the British presence in the Middle East and, incidentally, the first time that Royal Air Force planes flew over Israel since the mandate ended in 1948. The post-colonial relationship between the United Kingdom and the Arab countries always mixed economic, political and military interests. One has constantly been feeding on the other. Arab aristocracy and several army officers traditionally trained at Sandhurst and became ambassadors for British-made weaponry, from rifles to planes. Military co-operation continued even when the United Kingdom closed its bases east of Suez. The Royal Air Force bases in Cyprus ensured a level of capability to intervene in the area.
Oil wealth created a market for British luxury goods and not just because many wealthy Arabs chose to spend the hot summer months in the United Kingdom, a sort of counter-flow to the number of British residents seeking sun and warm weather in the Mediterranean.
The relationship between the UK and Middle Easter oil-producing countries has always been summarised as “we buy their oil and gas, they buy our goods.” How will this relationship be changed by the push to reduce carbon emission? The quest for net=zero mainly involves burning less fossil fuel; if the world buys less of “their oil,” will they buy less of “our goods”?
Before COP26, countries like Saudi Arabia and Bahrain made their own net-zero pledges; isn’t that a fossil fuel equivalent of turkeys voting for Christmas? According to Reuters, Saudi Arabia has pledged to achieve net-zero by 2060, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates by 2050. The UAE also announced it would invest $163 billion in renewable energy. Qatar has criticized these vague and rushed pledges. All four countries and Kuwait are in the top 10 countries with the highest amount of fossil fuel burnt per capita. Some commentators wondered if those pledges were a way to “look good” ahead of the COP26 conference in Glasgow. Recently Qatar pledged a cut on fossil fuel emission of 25% by 2030, not exactly net-zero but perhaps a more achievable target. In an interesting move, they have also agreed to be the gas supplier of last resort to the UK, whatever that means in practice.
The political, economic, and military relationship between the UK and the Middle East has changed a few times in the past hundred years. Both sides have shown interesting creativity at times. Who would have thought forty years ago that Dubai would have become a winter sunshine destination? The reduction in fossil fuel use will open another chapter in this long history, and it will be interesting to see which shape it will take.