DUBAI (Reuters) - British Prime Minister David Cameron sought to balance concern over human rights in Gulf Arab states with winning lucrative arms deals for Britain as he started a tour of the region on Monday.
Cameron said supported calls for greater democracy in the Middle East and that the British government was engaging Gulf states - some of which are trying to stifle political unrest - on their human rights record.
But discussions would show “respect and friendship,” he said, recognizing that governments have bridled at foreign criticism.
Cameron arrived in the United Arab Emirates on Monday and will visit Saudi Arabia on Tuesday before travelling to another destination in the Middle East.
High on his agenda will be selling the BAE Systems-built Eurofighter Typhoon fighter jet.
BAE officials say the Emirates has shown interest in ordering up to 60 Typhoons. He will also talk to UAE officials about how to develop a “strategic air defense relationship”, including collaboration on military aerospace equipment.
Saudi Arabia has also signaled it might place a second substantial order of Typhoons on top of the 72 jets it has already acquired, Cameron’s office said.
However, the British prime minister’s trip is complicated by human rights issues as Gulf nations struggle to contain protests inspired by the Arab Spring and Western nations weigh up their own strategic and commercial interests.
Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have both bridled at criticism by the British parliament, media and human rights groups over their lack of democracy and stifling of dissent.
Cameron himself has also been taken to task at home for muting criticism of pro-Western Gulf nations - and trying to sell them arms - in comparison to his strident support for the opposition in other Arab struggles such as Libya and Syria.
Meeting students in Abu Dhabi on Monday, Cameron said: “I‘m a supporter of the Arab Spring, the opportunity of moving towards more open societies, more open democracies, I think is good for the Middle East, for North Africa.”
Later in Dubai, he said of his visit to Saudi Arabia: “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.”
He also said it was legitimate to promote British business the purpose of his trip was “to help Britain compete and thrive in the global race”.
UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash, who was with Cameron as he showed off the Typhoon at an airfield, said commercial links had not been impacted by politics.
Asked about the prospects of Britain winning the possible order for the aircraft, he said: “I think these things are complicated, they take time of course.”
Gargash also said the West should be wary of supporting opposition groups born out of the Arab Spring protests.
“Many people are still caught in the euphoria of the Arab Spring, but in reality what we’re seeing currently in the Arab Spring is basically an entrenchment of conservative religious parties. They’re taking control,” Gargash said.
Gulf rulers are wary of parties linked to the Muslim Brotherhood, which won power in Egypt after last year’s popular uprising. Western governments also fear the Arab Spring could usher in hardline Islamist rule in the place of authoritarian but pro-Western governments.
The United Arab Emirates has been criticized for its response to the Arab Spring.
The European Parliament last month expressed “great concern about assaults, repression and intimidation” against rights activists. Human Rights Watch says the UAE’s record has “worsened significantly” in recent months.
Gargash said criticism of the UAE was often exaggerated and inaccurate, and while not perfect, the Emirates has a “forward looking, secular, and open” agenda.
A major oil exporter and regional business hub, the UAE arrested about 60 local Islamists in recent months, accusing them of belonging to the banned Muslim Brotherhood and conspiring to overthrow the government.
Britain has historic ties with Gulf Arab states, many of them former British protectorates.
Areas of mutual interest include opposition to Iran, counter-terrorism, and securing oil supplies. The Foreign Office says British exports to the region are worth 17 billion pounds ($27.44 billion), on a par with China and India combined.
Additional reporting by Praveen Menon; Editing by Angus MacSwan