Free Trade: A New Chapter
in UK-GCC Relations
By Matthew Robinson
As the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE) assumes an increasingly important international role opening up politically and economically to the global markets in a spirit of free trade offers a crucial platform to showcase how the region has developed and what their respective economies have to offer. The emergence of a GCC geo-economic anchor could not come at a better time for the UK as London charts a new strategic course. The past year has shown that the UK retains the stamina for a truly internationalist foreign policy and currently is among the most ardent supporters of Ukraine against the Russian invasion. At the same time, it helps lead efforts at containing China in the South Pacific. All in all, with the GCC’s increased clout and the UK projecting itself internationally the British-Gulf relationship is ready for renewal. This manifested itself as their shared free trade agenda was bolstered when the UK Trade Secretary, Anne-Marie Trevelyan, her counterparts from the GCC member states and GCC Secretary General, Nayef Falah M. Al-Hajraf, commenced their negotiations to complete a free trade agreement (FTA).
Equivalent to the UK’s seventh largest export market, the GCC’s demand for international products and services is forecast to grow exponentially by 35% to £800 billion by 2035, presenting new opportunities for British businesses. The UK is also the second largest services exporter in the world, with services exports to the GCC worth £12.1 billion in 2021. Even as things stand now, pre-FTA, trade links were rapidly developing—as of 2019 there were approximately 600 GCC-owned businesses in the UK, supporting over 25,000 jobs in the national economy. This is a threefold increase over the previous decade.
Consumers in the Gulf have significant purchasing power and a huge appetite for UK products and services. In this regard a UK-GCC FTA could mean substantive benefits for the UK farming community, as the Gulf is reliant on imported food. British food and drink exports to GCC countries were worth £625 million last year, and a deal with the UK could cut or eliminate tariffs on food and drink exports from the UK. Tariffs that could be reduced include cereals, currently subject to a tariff of up to 25%; chocolate, up to 15%; baking products, up to 10%; and smoked salmon, which has a 5% tariff at present.
As it relates to clean energy, with the elimination of tariffs on UK exports to the Gulf on things like wind turbine parts, a deal could afford better opportunities for the UK private sector to support GCC countries as they aim to diversify their economies away from oil and gas and towards other renewable energy technologies. As an example, the UAE, has established a target of generating half of all its electricity from renewable sources by 2050.
The negotiations with the GCC mark the fourth that the UK has launched this year after India, Canada and Mexico, as Britain continues to try and establish itself as a hub of free trade—an off-shore economic balance that caters to the US, EU and further afield into the Middle East. The UK is not the only European actor looking to deepen economic and trade cooperation with the GCC. Last month the European Commission published the EU’s ‘Strategic Partnership with the Gulf’ that looks to work more closely with the GCC in a raft of areas, including trade and investment. Trade with the GCC is not a zero sum game and many European and British companies will collaborate to better benefit from the liberalisation of Gulf economies.
In the absence of any FTA between the UK and the GCC, trade between the two is already worth £30 billion annually. With a deal in place there are unquestionably great opportunities to build on this across many sectors, including agriculture, green growth, services and digital.
Of course trade is not only a question of economics and numbers. It is also a question of trust, of confidence and of being able to communicate to identify and pursue mutually beneficial interests. The free trade talks between London and the GCC reflects long-standing good relations and the shared interests of pushing forward so that all parties concerned can increase their prosperity and therefore benefit together. With so much uncertainty lapping at the shores of the Middle East and now Europe, the opening of comprehensive free trade talks between the UK and GCC — hopefully to be followed by the EU and GCC in the coming months — is truly a step in the right direction.
GCC: EU unveils Strategic Partnership with the Gulf, 18 May 2022, https://ec.europa.eu/commission/presscorner/detail/en/IP_22_3165.
UK launches ambitious trade deal with Gulf nations, 21 June 2022, https://www.gov.uk/government/news/uk-launches-ambitious-trade-deal-with-gulf-nationsa