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Delicate Diplomacy On Cameron Gulf Arms Tour

(c) Sky News 2012

David Cameron is attempting to cement major UK arms sales and bolster relations with allies on a three-day tour of the Gulf and Middle East.

The Prime Minister is personally spearheading a push to persuade the United Arab Emirates to buy 60 of BAE's Typhoon jets over French rivals in a deal reported to be worth upwards of £3bn.

On Tuesday, he will travel to Saudi Arabia - Britain's biggest trading partner in the region - which is also considering adding to its fleet of aircraft.

Downing Street said the visit - Mr Cameron's second to each country as premier - was part of a wider effort to build a "reinvigorated partnership" between Britain and the region's leaders.

Reinforced military ties are seen as crucial amid continued fears over Iran's nuclear ambitions and the threat Tehran could seek to badly disrupt oil supplies by blocking the Straits of Hormuz.

Mr Cameron's first stop was a military airbase near Dubai, where a number of RAF Typhoons are stationed, to promote the aircraft to military and political figures from the UAE.

He will also hold talks with the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Prime Minister of the UAE on the potential for a joint work on the next generation of military aerospace equipment.

The Government hopes to secure deals for 100 Typhoons to be sold to the region in the coming year - worth at least £6bn to British firms.

Mr Cameron faces a tough balancing act as he attempts to secure billions in investment from the oil-rich states while addressing concerns about the human rights records of their regimes.

The Arab Spring has led to an increased focus on largely autocratic rule in many states, including crackdowns on pro-democracy and other protest movements.

The Government has been criticised for failing to condemn abuses and accused of continuing to sell military equipment with insufficient guarantees it would not be used in repression.

Meanwhile, Gulf states are unhappy about the UK's support of the Arab Spring and there are reports it could lead to British firms being snubbed for future contracts.

Saudi officials has already warned it would be "re-evaluating" relations after an inquiry into the country by the Commons foreign affairs committee, that it called "insulting".

After arriving in Dubai, Mr Cameron insisted: "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."

He said British exports to the UAE were up 16% in the first half of the year and that 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."

Answering questions from students at Zayed University in Abu Dhabi later, Mr Cameron said everything should be done to stop Iran developing nuclear weapons.

He also backed the Arab Spring, saying that the movement "towards more open societies and more open democracies" was good for the Middle East and North Africa.

On Wednesday, Mr Cameron will make a short visit to the Middle East before flying home for talks with German Chancellor Angela Merkel at Downing Street ahead of the crunch EU budget summit.

Amnesty International UK's head of policy and government affairs Allan Hogarth said: "Selling arms to countries like Saudi Arabia and UAE should only be considered if there are absolutely watertight guarantees over them not being used to commit human rights violations."