'Trade over human rights': Britain drifts towards repressive regimes as no-deal Brexit looms

'Trade over human rights': Britain drifts towards repressive regimes as no-deal Brexit looms
Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Israel jostle for position at the top of the Conservative government's list of ideal trading partners, writes Jonathan Fenton-Harvey.
5 min read
12 September, 2018
Protesters dressed as Theresa May and torture victims hold a demonstration outside Whitehall [Amnesty/Getty]
As a no-deal Brexit looks increasingly likely, Britain's Conservative government risks drifting closer towards repressive regimes in the Middle East to compensate for economic vulnerability, while diminishing the country's influence over them, say analysts and human rights advocates.

Dismissing claims that a "no-deal Brexit" could be economically harmful, UK Prime Minister Theresa May is embracing the possibility. Meanwhile, with Britain due to leave the EU in March 2019, May has already looked towards traditional Middle Eastern allies, whose investment could attempt to counterbalance any loss of EU trade.

"With the UK desperate to consolidate global trade relationships post-Brexit it seems inevitable that the economic dimension of relations with wealthy Gulf states such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE will become even more important, likely pushing other issues down the pecking order of importance," Julien Barnes-Dacey, director of the Middle East and North Africa programme at the European Council for Foreign Relations, told The New Arab.

Saudi ministers already show their keenness in attracting further British investment, including the powerful Energy Minister Kalid al-Falih, who has told British trade representatives that increased business with Riyadh would be their gateway to the Middle East, Africa, and the Islamic world as a whole - "to which Saudi Arabia is central".

Further mutual investment between the two would also be of benefit to Saudi Arabia, another country facing economic pressure to fulfil its "Vision 2030" - of which Britain has already pledged to be a partner.

Following the visit of Crown Prince Mohamed Bin Salman to London in March, both sides agreed to mutual investment deals worth £65 billion, including in the education, banking and pharmaceutical sector - showing that May's government is already relying on Saudi investment.

Saudi Arabia is not the only Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) state linked with greater British trade following Brexit. According to the Department for International Trade, Kuwait is encouraging future British investment, while the UAE will continue to be a big future trading partner for Britain.

The UAE minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation and the UAE ambassador to the UK both met with British investors in London last week, to discuss ties between Abu Dhabi and London.

Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan, the UAE's Foreign Affairs minister, also suggested Abu Dhabi was an ideal place for Britain to invest in the future. 

"A UK-UAE free trade agreement, which is likely to be fast-tracked following the UAE foreign minister's visit, is a quick potential win and a likely precursor to other bilateral agreements with GCC countries," Wes Schwalje, chief operating officer of Tahseen Consulting, told The New Arab.

"If the UK were to sign bilateral agreements with several GCC countries following Brexit, we could see bilateral trade with the region top £50 billion by 2020 as well as growing investments."

Last year, UAE-UK total trade rose to £17.5 billion, an increase of 12 percent from the previous year.

However, due to the ongoing Gulf crisis, with Qatar facing a Saudi-led blockade, Britain could find difficulties in negotiating free-trade agreements with the GCC, said Simon Penney, one of the UK's trade commissioners, and a British envoy to the Middle East.

Britain should therefore explore less obvious trading partners in the region, such as Iraq - where British companies are already finding opportunities, Penney added.

While Britain has also attracted criticism for military support to Israel, along with existing investment which includes imports from the occupied West Bank, Tel Aviv could seek to further gain from Brexit.

Since the referendum, Israeli companies have increased their investment in Britain. Since then, trade figures have increased, growing to £6.9 billion by 2018, a 25 percent increase from 2017.

Despite UK domestic political opposition over flagrant Israeli human rights abuses, Brexit creates huge investment opportunities for Israel, which could benefit from a weakened Pound Sterling, said Hugo Bieber, chief executive of the chamber of commerce for UK-Israel Business (UKIB).

Less influence over human rights violations
With the economic instability from Brexit, Britain's dependency on alliances with countries such as Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Israel will only increase, making Westminster more reluctant to address further human rights violations.  

Britain's Conservative government has so far focused more on retaining economic ties with Saudi Arabia and its coalition partners in Yemen, rather than using its role as UN Security Council pen-holder for Yemen to resolve the conflict.

"The UK government is already one of the biggest arms dealers in the world, and the early signs suggest that the version of Brexit this government is pursuing is one that will see even greater focus arms sales to warzones and dictatorships," Andrew Smith of the Campaign Against the Arms Trade (CAAT) told
The New Arab.

Since Saudi Arabia's air campaign on Yemen began in 2015, a year before the Brexit vote, Britain's arms sales to the kingdom have increased by nearly 500 percent.

Following the Brexit vote, arms exports to many countries considered "not free" by Freedom House have increased by nearly one third, reported CAAT.

Britain sold £221 million-worth of weapons to Israel alone in 2017, a huge increase from the previous year's figure of £86 million.

Ryvka Barnard, War on Want's senior campaigner for militarism and security, warns increased trade with states like Saudi Arabia, Israel and the UAE risks granting further impunity for their actions.

"Some in the arms industry and in government present a dystopian picture of the future of British trade. They make it appear as though we must 'choose' between trade and respect for human rights. But the truth is that these things are connected," she told The New Arab. 

"All our trade deals must be negotiated with human rights at the core, otherwise they won't benefit people; just make profit for a few and a more dangerous world for the rest of us."

Jonathan Fenton-Harvey is a freelance journalist. 

Follow him on Twitter: @jfentonharvey