UK Free Trade with the GCC: What is Liz Truss Looking for in the Middle East?

Over the past decades, European countries have had little manoeuvring power in the Middle East due to direct US military presence and power. But now that the focus of US foreign policy, according to the new government headed by Joe Biden, has shifted to the East Asian region, the vacuum provides an opportunity for powers such as the UK to play a role in the Gulf and the Middle East. Gerry Grimstone, the UK’s investment minister, has announced that his country is in talks with the GCC countries to conclude a free trade agreement. UK free trade with the GCC is part of its post-Brexit foreign policy.

GCC as New Trading Partner for Britain

UK free trade with the GCC has become extremely important for both sides in recent months. A deal will be concluded within 12 months, Grimstone told a conference in Dubai. The UK government has issued a statement declaring that the GCC countries are an important trading partner for Britain. The value of British exports to GCC countries has reached an estimated $29.57 billion, and the value of trade between the two sides in 2020 exceeded 30 billion pounds, the statement said.

GCC Welcomes Free Trade with the UK

The idea of free trade between the UK and the GCC has been welcomed by the leaders of these countries. In October, Nayef Falah Mubarak Al-Hajraf, Secretary-General of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), welcomed the start of public consultations on free trade between the UK and the GCC. Al-Hajraf described the declaration as a step towards strengthening trade and economic relations between the two sides in order to serve the common good. The UK government is seeking to reach a free trade agreement with the countries on the southern shores of the Persian Gulf within a year to increase employment and boost food exports.

Job Creation in the UK

Boris Johnson’s Minister of Investment Gerry Grimstone believes that an agreement with GCC countries could lead to job creation across the UK. The British newspaper wrote that London currently has economic relations with the member states of this council and that this Arab institution is a major trading partner for the UK. In 2020, UK trade with the GCC was £30 billion, of which £22 billion ($29.57 billion) was British exports to the GCC.

Benefits of Free Trade with the GCC

One of the benefits of this possible agreement is that farmers and food producers will have better access to the markets of the countries south of the Persian Gulf (Kuwait, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Oman), which import almost all of their food. UK free trade with the GCC will bring a variety of benefits to the country.

British Foreign Policy in the Post-Brexit Period

UK free trade with the GCC is part of the country’s foreign policy after leaving the EU. Relations between the Arab states of the Persian Gulf with the UK have been close due to their common interests. After its final withdrawal from the EU, the UK pursued an independent policy and turned its special attention to the Persian Gulf region. In this regard, Chief of the Defence Staff, General Sir Nick Carter, announced at a military meeting held a few days ago that his country was ready to fully support its partners in the Persian Gulf in the face of common threats. He said that British security relations in the Persian Gulf region are very deep, and there are more than a thousand British military personnel serving in the Middle East, as well as British aircrafts and ships.

The UK Seeks to Expand its Influence in the Middle East

In addition, news sources report that the US Carrier Strike Group will soon enter the Middle East to participate in military drills with British forces. According to the UK, the Arab countries of the Persian Gulf are one of the key players in determining the framework of conflicts in the region, and therefore ensuring deep ties with them will help expand British influence in the Middle East. In addition to numerous arms deals with Saudi Arabia, London has made significant military investments in the region in recent years.

British Military Investment in the Middle East

The UK opened its permanent naval base, HMS Juffair, in Bahrain in 2015, and British Air Force planes regularly fly to bases in the north and south of the Persian Gulf. In September 2020, the UK Army announced that it had made a €25.7 million investment to strengthen its military base at the strategic port of Duqm in Oman. In April 2021, Qatar and the UK signed a memorandum of understanding to expand air force cooperation between the two countries, under which the UK also took responsibility for refuelling Qatari aircrafts. Doha is also set to receive 24 Typhoon fighters from the UK at the same time as the 2022 World Cup.

UK Military Reactivated in the Middle East

Many analysts believe that London’s renewed military activities in the Persian Gulf region since 2015 is part of the British strategy, and perhaps the most important part of it, to expand its influence in the region. The UK has extensive infrastructure in the region which can be expanded and developed through agreements with the relevant countries, thus allowing it to play a more prominent military role. The Middle East, as a strategic region, has always been of great importance to the UK. On the other hand, the regional monarchies, which equate security with the presence of foreign powers, see the decline of US foreign policy in the region as a power vacuum and are therefore turning to countries such as the UK and France to fill this security gap.

In general, the UK is looking for ways to strengthen its economy and trade, and there is no doubt that a military conflict in the Persian Gulf could lead to bigger arm deals by London in this region. Of course, as to whether the UK intends to replace the US in the region, analysts believe that London is not in a position to compete with Washington in its role in the Middle East. Rather, it seeks to fill the void left by the possibility of a US withdrawal from the region.

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