19 December, 2016

UK PM, Theresa May, Addresses the GCC Summit in Bahrain

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By Maryna Zashyvaylo

The 37th Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) summit, which took place on 6-7 December 2016 in Bahrain, was historically significant owing to the presence and address of UK Prime Minister, Theresa May, who is the first British leader and the very first woman to participate in the GCC’s annual gathering. The purpose of May’s visit was to discuss the creation of a GCC-UK free trade space and to develop security ties. These discussions took place in light of the UK’s Brexit vote and Middle East’s larger security tensions.

Enduring Partners in Trade, Security and Friendship

Following the UK’s exit from the EU, it has become a necessity for the UK to invigorate new, major, trading allies, beyond Europe. May’s plan is to develop a £30 billion trade deal programme and free up GCC-UK business transactions. According to May, ‘the Gulf is already our largest investor and our second biggest non-European export market and I think there is huge potential to expand this relationship in the years ahead.’

This claim is solid—the GCC market is worth some £1 trillion and trade between the UK and Bahrain (alone) was estimated to be £432 million in 2015, which included 500 British companies and 350 British-Bahraini business partnerships. Furthermore, the joint investments between the UK and Saudi Arabia reached £13.8 billion the same year. A privatisation scheme and other substantial reforms carried out by the Saudi government are intended to enable exactly that type of trade and investment which May aspires to implement. Through Gulf investment, the UK is attempting to increase its prosperity significantly.

In its turn, the British perceive the Gulf states as a suitable platform to start business in various spheres, foremost energy, infrastructure, education and healthcare. In order to promote business opportunities for British firms over the next five years, the UK government is to enable a new multiple entry visa for its citizens travelling to Saudi Arabia to do their business; taking part in Expo 2020 in Dubai; establishing a GCC-UK working party in order to organise post-Brexit trade deals.

Many have been critical of May in her decision to expand ties with a region often depicted as politically heavy handed though May insisted that ‘we don’t uphold our values and human rights by turning our back on this issue. We achieve far more by stepping up, engaging with these countries and working with them.’ May continued to stress UK support for reforms in areas of justice and policing. Security was another major issue discussed at the summit. Britain, which is aspiring to find a new place in the world, is working to increase GCC-UK security cooperation.

The following steps will be taken:

1. airline security will be strengthened through a more efficient screening at airports to track terrorists

2. £3 billion will be spent throughout the next 10 years on a larger number of British warship, aircraft and staff deployed in the Gulf, among others a new permanent defence personnel in Dubai

3. counter-terrorism financing training with individual states will take place as soon as next week.

As May succinctly put it: ‘now more than ever, Gulf security is our security.’ Given the money being put behind such programmes, it is clear that May was not simply invoking political jargon but announcing a strategic doctrine.

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May’s trip to the GCC Summit in Bahrain was historic. She urged regional leaders to implement substantial economic and social reforms and stressed that ‘the UK is determined to continue to be your partner of choice as you embed international norms and see through the reforms which are so essential for all of your people.’ And, very importantly, she claimed to be ‘clear-eyed’ about the threat coming from Iran while emphasising the significance of the P5+1 nuclear deal and assuring cooperation with the GCC to counteract Iran’s negative influence. At a time of thundering international tensions and uncertainty, of national and regional fragmentation and a seemingly unending string of crises ranging from economic fluctuations to terrorism and conventional war, it is certainly important to note that the UK is assuming increasing responsibility for one of the most important, dynamic and yet vulnerable regions in the world—the Arab Gulf.