The UK has embarked on a 14-week consultation on a future trade deal with the Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC), seeking the views of the public and business before International Trade Secretary Anne-Marie Trevelyan hopes to begin talks in 2022.
The GCC comprises the Kingdom of Bahrain, the State of Kuwait, the Sultanate of Oman, the State of Qatar, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, and it is one of the UK’s largest trading partners.
Total bilateral trade was worth over £30 billion in 2020 and an accord with the six monarchies is seen as a key target for post-Brexit Britain.
According to the Department for International Trade (DIT), it would take the relationship to the next level in industries of the future such as digital trade, services and green growth – delivering higher-paying jobs across the country.
Ms Trevelyan said: “A trade agreement with the Gulf Co-operation Council is a huge opportunity to liberalise trade with a growing market for British business and deepen ties with a region that is vital to our strategic interests.
“We want a modern, comprehensive agreement that breaks down trade barriers to a huge food and drink market and in areas like digital trade and renewable energy which will deliver well-paid jobs in all parts of the UK.”
The International Trade Secretary, who succeeded now-Foreign Secretary Liz Truss in a recent Cabinet reshuffle, is expected to hold a bilateral meeting in London with GCC secretary-general Dr Nayef Falah M Al-Hajraf and members of the Bahrain government, who currently hold the rotating presidency of the GCC.
Concluding in January 2022, the consultation includes a questionnaire aimed at gathering information from participants about their experiences and priorities when doing business with the countries in the GCC to ensure any future deal reflects the UK’s best interests.
Trade minister Ranil Jayawardena added: “The nations forming the Gulf Co-operation Council are, together, one of our biggest trading and investment partners and are home to over 50 million people.
“From exports of Welsh lamb and Scotch beef, to biscuits from Belfast and financial services from the City of London, I am determined to strike a deal that will further cement our relationships, attract investment, promote trade opportunities and provide significant benefits for British business, creating jobs in communities across the country.”
Paul Benton, managing director international of the Association of British HealthTech Industries (ABHI), said: “As the economies of the region have matured and diversified in recent years, we have seen a significant demand for proven UK HealthTech, and enhanced trade opportunities with the region will only boost this further.”
Shadow international trade secretary Emily Thornberry said while there are undoubtedly opportunities for British businesses in the Gulf, there were “lots of practical questions too”.
She said: “There are undoubted opportunities for British businesses in the Gulf, from green technology and the construction industry to educational exports and recreational services, but there are lots of practical questions too.
“How geared up is the DIT to negotiate a deal where barriers to service exports are the main issue, not tariffs; is ISDS (investor-state dispute settlement) going to be a feature of this agreement as it is in our investment deal with the UAE? What commitments will the GCC be prepared to make on climate change? And on a basic level, how easy will it be to agree common rules with a set of countries whose own systems are still quite different?
“But above all of those is a question of morality, and whether we should be willing to agree preferential terms of trade with a group of autocracies who have some of the worst records in the world for the abuse of human rights, the mistreatment of workers, and the subjugation of women.
“Will this proposed agreement contain serious, enforceable commitments on human rights, or are we going to turn a blind eye to those abuses in the pursuit of a quick deal? The Government may be desperate to make up for the trade we are losing because of their botched Brexit, but that should not come at the price of our principles and values.”
Since its inception in 1981, there have been few instances where the GCC has been able to conclude free trade agreements.
Deals with the four countries of the European Free Trade Association (EFTA) and Singapore are among the few it has successfully concluded.
Others have failed due to political reasons. In 1990, free trade talks between the GCC and the EU were launched but subsequently failed due to Europe’s insistence on including human rights clauses. The talks ended in 2008 without a deal.
Similarly, trade talks with Australia began in July 2007 but ended two years later without reaching an agreement.