The UK has announced it will soon begin preparations to land a post-Brexit trade deal with the six Middle Eastern countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).
International trade secretary Anne-Marie Trevelyan today launched a 14-week consultation on what businesses would like to see in a trade deal, before formal negotiations start next year.
The GCC is a regional trading bloc made up of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Qatar, Oman, Bahrain and Kuwait.
The Department of International Trade said a trade deal could mean greater access to the bloc for British companies in the financial services, education, healthcare and drinks sectors in particular.
“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,” Trevelyan said.
The UK has already signed two multi-year agreements with the UAE this year, which will see billions of pounds invested in Britain.
City A.M. reported last month that similar deals could be struck with other Gulf countries at this month’s Global Investment Summit in London, before a trade deal with the GCC is hammered out.
Saudia Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund – overseen by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman – also completed a long mooted deal to buy Newcastle Football Club for £300m yesterday.
Saudi Arabia has the region’s largest economy and is the world’s second largest exporter of oil, but bin Salman has been accused of human rights abuses and of ordering the murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018.
There have also been widespread accusations of worker exploitation in Qatar and the UAE in particular, while all six countries lag far behind the west in ensuring women’s rights.
Dr Sanam Vakil, the deputy director of the Middle East and North Africa Programme at the Chatham House think tank, said a deal would only go through with the GCC if there are no provisions on human rights in the text.
“The EU’s trade negotiations with the GCC failed because they tried to insert a human rights conditionality into an agreement, but I think this government is pragmatic enough that it will try to avoid repeating those mistakes.
Labour’s shadow international trade secretary Emily Thornberry questioned “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”.
She said: “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?”