David Cameron today defended his visit to the Middle East – where he hopes to win billions of pounds of defence contracts - as he insisted he would not hesitate to raise concerns about his hosts’ human rights records.
He was speaking in Dubai where he hopes to help clinch a £6bn deal with the United Arab Emirates military for BAE Typhoon fighter jets.
Mr Cameron is making a three-day visit to the region, which will also include Saudi Arabia, which is also considering buying more typhoons.
The Saudi human rights record has been widely criticised, including its decision to deploy military hardware last year to Bahrain to help its Government crush protests by demonstrators.
The Prime Minister 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.”
His spokesman said: “We have a large and important defence industry and the Prime Minister is keen to see that industry prosper – it’s important for jobs in this country. We have strict rules about sales of these things.”
Tomorrow’s meeting in Saudi Arabia is likely to focus on the threat from Iran and fears it has ambitions to develop nuclear weapons.
Answering questions from students at Zayed University in Abu Dhabi today, Mr Cameron said Iran developing nuclear weapons would not only be a “desperately bad development for our world” but could also “trigger a nuclear arms race across the whole of the region”.
That would make the Middle East “a more unstable and more dangerous place”, he said.
“We should do everything we can to stop it happening.”
Tensions are heightened at present over the Iranian issue and Mr Cameron has been discussing future cooperation with the UAE on strategic defence issues as contingency plans are examined for any escalation of the issue - including a possible blocking of the Straits of Hormuz - a vital oil supply route.
He was pressed by several of those present about human rights and his opinion of the Arab Spring movements.
“I am a supporter of the Arab Spring,” he told the students.
“The idea of moving towards more open societies and more open democracies is good for the Middle East and North Africa,” he went on - though he insisted that it was also important to respect individual countries' journeys.
Noting that there was a majority of women among the audience, he said the UAE government was one “that takes very seriously the consent and concerns of its people.”
Mr Cameron today met British business leaders for a construction trade event as part of efforts to secure a share of lucrative investment on offer in the oil-rich United Arab Emirates.
He said British exports to the UAE 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”.
“It is not just about trade and investment,” the premier added.
“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.”