As part of a comprehensive effort to disengage from Europe and strengthen its relations with other partners, the UK is increasingly focusing its attention on the Gulf. The regional tour of the newly appointed Foreign Secretary Liz Truss, who on 20 October commenced an official visit to Qatar and Saudi Arabia, is indicative of the importance given to the region, considered strategic for London’s renewed ambitions after Brexit.
Afghanistan topped the agenda of the discussions in Doha, where Truss met with Emir Sheikh Tamin bin Hamad al-Thani and the deputy Prime Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani. The UK and its allies have frequently praised the critical role played by Qatar after the US’ withdrawal from Afghanistan and the end of NATO’s Resolute Support Mission. Alongside offering a logistic hub for the safe passage of all those seeking to leave the conflict-thorn country, Doha continues to be central in maintaining a channel of communication with the Taliban open. Truss’ visit also marked the launch of a Strategic Dialogue with Qatar, whose aim is to deepen bilateral cooperation not only on security issues, but also on development, trade and investment.
The same aspects were touched upon during the UK Foreign Secretary’s stay in Riyadh, where Truss met with her Saudi counterpart Prince Faisal bin Farhan al-Saud. Saudi Arabia’s plans to diversify and decarbonise its economy, heavily reliant on fossil fuels, is expected to spur unprecedented growth in several sectors, including digital trade, services and renewable energy, providing foreign investors with unprecedented investment opportunities.
Green growth prospects are particularly promising, also in consideration of the recent steps taken by Saudi Arabia. Launched this month, the Middle East Green Initiative and the Saudi Green Initiative (in which Riyad’s pledged to reach net-zero carbon emission by 2060) represented some serious efforts by the Saudi kingdom to combat climate change, both on the country level and through collective action. The initiatives have also laid the groundwork for the UN Climate Change Conference (also known as COP26) that would take place in Glasgow next month.
Preparations in London for a trade deal with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) complete the picture, highlighting how economic considerations are driving the UK’s shift to the region. Talks are set to begin in 2022 and a free trade deal is expected to result in a marked increase of trade volumes between the two sides, hovering around US$61 billion in 2019 (7% of the size of UK’s commerce with the EU, which has also expressed interested in reopening trade deal talks with the GCC).
Opening consultations on the trade deal with British businesses and public, the International Trade Secretary Anne-Marie Trevelyan confirmed that deepening ties with the Gulf region is vital to the UK’s strategic interests. Despite concerns voiced by part of the public opinion (recently emerged following the takeover of the Newcastle United football club by a Saudi-backed consortium and polls unfavourable to an FTA with Saudi Arabia), Global Britain’s deep dive in the Gulf is likely to continue, providing London with the opportunity to refashion its policy east of Suez.
Associate Fellow for the Conflict, Security and Development Programme at the IISS and Maghreb Analyst for the NATO Defense College Foundation, he regularly publishes on issues such as political developments, security and terrorism in the North Africa region