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'Nothing off limits' for PM in Gulf

Arms sales to Middle East allies are "completely legitimate and right", David Cameron said as he faced criticism from human rights campaigners over a trade and diplomacy mission to Gulf states.

The Prime Minister flew into Dubai to urge the United Arab Emirates to buy 60 BAE Typhoon jets rather than their French rival aircraft in part of a wide-ranging commercial drive to secure the UK a larger slice of the lucrative deals to be had with the oil-rich states.

He will continue his tour in Saudi Arabia and was accused by Amnesty International of continuing a "deeply-disturbing trade-off" between trade and strategic interests and the promotion of rights and democratic reform.

But the premier insisted he would address human rights issues in talks with the autocratic regimes' rulers and reaffirmed his support for the Arab Spring movements which have toppled governments in other parts of the Middle East and North Africa.

There is disquiet among the Gulf states about that support and a perceived intrusion into their affairs which is reported to have led to some British firms already being frozen out of contracts, leaving Mr Cameron with a delicate balancing act.

Britain hopes to sell 100 Typhoons in the region over the next year, including to the Saudis who are considering increasing their complement of the fighter aircraft - though French president Francois Hollande visited the country today to push his own country's alternative.

Mr Cameron insisted there were no "no go areas" in his talks with the leaders and that human rights were on the agenda but also said it was right to show "respect and friendship to a very to old ally and partner".

They also had a right to self defence, he said in a defence of the arms sales over which Britain had "one of the strictest regimes anywhere in the world".

And with 300,000 UK jobs in the industry "that sort of business is completely legitimate and right."

Mr Cameron was asked several times about human rights and democratic reform when he took questions from students at Zayed University in Abu Dhabi.

"I am a supporter of the Arab Spring," he told the students - though he conceded that it was yet to be seen whether Islamic governments would prove reforming or extremist, the fear of many Gulf leaders over movements in their own countries. There have been staunch criticisms of the severity with which many protests have been put down.

"The idea of moving towards more open societies and more democracies is good for the Middle East and North Africa," he went on - though he was also careful to insist that it was important to respect individual countries' "journeys" towards change.

Noting that there was a majority of women among the audience, he said the UAE government - which has faced criticism over human rights - was one "that takes very seriously the consent and concerns of its people".

Mr Cameron, who spent parts of his day talking to British business leaders seeking contracts in the UAE, said he wanted to take ties between the two countries to "a whole new level" as part of efforts to export Britain out of its economic troubles.

Closer military links were also on the agenda in talks with Emirati rulers amid speculation Britain could station armed forces there on a more permanent basis as part of contingency planning for any possible escalation of the Iran stand off amid rising tensions in the Gulf.

At present, there are 70 personnel there, but they are engaged in the transfers of troops and equipment to and from Afghanistan.

Mr Cameron struck an aggressive tone when asked by the students about Iran, saying it would be a "desperately bad development for our world" if Tehran succeeded in acquiring a nuclear weapon and could "trigger a nuclear arms race across the whole of the region".

"We should do everything we can to stop it happening," he said.

Asked about the visit by President Hollande, the Prime Minister's official spokesman said: "The Prime Minister has been making the point that we are in a global race.

"Other countries will be looking to get these contracts and that is why he is very keen to lend his personal support to try to further the industries of our export companies."

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.

"In the past, a large Saudi chequebook has apparently meant it could purchase weapons as well as silence over its own dreadful human rights record. It's time for David Cameron to end this deeply disturbing trade-off."

At the question and answer session, Mr Cameron also hit out at the United Nations over Syria, saying that history would judge that it had "failed the world" by not producing tough resolutions or action because of Russian and Chinese vetoes.

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