The United Kingdom is set to endure yet another political reshuffle after Boris Johnson, its Prime Minister who oversaw Britain’s departure from the European Union (EU), announced his impending resignation from his position on July 6. From Johnson’s perspective, Brexit created an opportunity to bolster the UK’s global standing, in line with the mantra of “Global Britain”, wherein post-Brexit Britain would enhance its trade and diplomatic clout worldwide while continuing to champion human rights. Leveraging its historic ties with the Gulf would not only strengthen Britain’s standing in the Middle East, but also aid it to expand its new trade routes into the Indo-Pacific and beyond.
Historically, Britain has enjoyed considerable influence in the Gulf. In order to protect British regional commerce, the smaller four of the six GCC states—Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, and the seven sheikhdoms that later coalesced as the United Arab Emirates—were each brought under British control and managed as protectorates although Britain officially designated them as “sovereign states in a special treaty relationship with the United Kingdom” ergo the “Trucial States”. However, even when they achieved complete independence, the UK retained an influential political, economic, and cultural role in the region.
As David Wearing argued in his 2016 book “Anglo Arabia: Why Gulf Wealth Matters to Britain,” while Britain still desires to benefit from the Gulf’s abundant natural resources, it also seeks to maintain these links as a form of military and diplomatic power projection in the Middle East amid Britain’s decline as a global power. While such links became more important to London following Brexit, Washington’s perceived withdrawal from the region has also given Britain an opportunity to enhance its clout in the Gulf.
Even before the Brexit referendum in 2016, Britain had aimed to revive its influence in the Gulf through a series of diplomatic agreements with GCC leaders. These agreements largely failed to reach their stated goals, due to regional developments or domestic British politics; a Defence Cooperation Accord (DCA) signed between the UK and the UAE in 1996 went neglected after Tony Blair’s electoral victory in 1997, and David Cameron’s “Gulf Initiative” of 2010 was abandoned due to regional instability after the Arab Spring.
Even as political agreements between British and Gulf leaders failed, however, economic ties between Britain and the Gulf grew dramatically. In 2005, the UK’s total trade volume with the GCC was $13.2 billion; by 2010, it had shot up to $19.1 billion. Following the Brexit referendum, trade and military ties developed further, and by 2019, UK and GCC trade already was worth around $61 billion, showing that bilateral ties had expanded in anticipation of Brexit. More significant deals took place, including the UAE sovereign wealth fund Mubadala’s agreement to invest £10 billion into UK clean energy, life sciences, and technology, the acquisition of Newcastle United F.C. by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF), and the Qatar Investment Authority’s investment in a Rolls-Royce project to develop new-generation nuclear reactors.
Only days before Johnson’s resignation, the UK Department for International Trade announced that it had made progress on a free trade agreement (FTA) with the GCC states, signaling that this was a key priority for post-Brexit Britain. The process to establish an FTA started in October 2021. The following month, UK Foreign Secretary Liz Truss convened the foreign ministers of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Oman, Bahrain and Kuwait, the UAE Ambassador and Permanent Representative to the United Nations, and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Secretary-General at Chevening House for discussions on implementing the FTA.
Not only would an FTA help bolster trade relations between London and the GCC, but it also aimed to help expand Britain’s trade routes further into the Indo-Pacific, enabling Britain to globalize its trade routes. Moreover, as the EU and GCC still do not have a free trade agreement after fifteen years of negotiations, Britain could gain a competitive advantage if it managed to secure one.
Politically, this marked increase of trade means that London has been even keener to support GCC states politically—and more willing to overlook those countries’ checkered human rights records. Given Britain’s increased dependency on trade with the Gulf, any criticism from London could have jeopardized potential trade deals, creating an incentive for self-censorship.
Military cooperation between the UK and the GCC has therefore enhanced further since the 2016 referendum. For instance, Britain and Bahrain expanded their military cooperation further when, in April 2018, the UK announced that it was opening a new naval base at Mina Salman Port in Bahrain named HMS Juffair hosting 300-550 personnel and 5 naval ships, aimed at bolstering Britain’s military clout in the Middle East. Also in 2018, the UK conducted its largest military exercise in Oman since 2001 with 5,500 troops, and pledged to open a naval base in the Omani port of Daqm in 2019, in which it invested a further $30.5 million in 2020.
Ties with Muscat have since developed further, and the British and Omani militaries carried out joint training exercises in 2021. Later in the year, in November 2021, Britain implemented the “Future Soldier” program, intended to employ military reforms such as the use of advanced technology through increased reliance on cyber-security and greater personnel deployment. Britain’s decision to move its military presence in Canada to Oman by 2023 is part of this plan, as developing a greater military presence in Oman is aimed at countering Iran and helping Britain to tackle other crises, such as countering Russia in Ukraine.
Under Johnson, Britain sought to secure its military support to Saudi Arabia, thus requiring the strengthening of Britain’s involvement in Yemen. In June 2019, a month before Johnson was selected to replace former Prime Minister Theresa May, a Court of Appeal ruling that weapons sales to Saudi Arabia were “unlawful” due to civilian casualties in Yemen forced London to temporarily halt arms sales to Riyadh. When Johnson was Prime Minister, however, then-International Trade Secretary Liz Truss apologized for “accidentally” selling weapons to Saudi Arabia, and weapons sales fully resumed in 2020 after London claimed that only “isolated incidents” of civilian deaths had occurred with British weaponry in Yemen.
Thus, U.S. President Joe Biden’s electoral victory and curtailing of offensive weapons sales to Saudi Arabia left London more isolated, particularly as Johnson’s government insisted that arms transactions to the Saudi-led coalition should continue. This was despite the UK and the US having similar policies of backing the coalition and the UK having adopted a more ‘Atlantic-oriented’ foreign policy towards Washington, rather than with the EU.
As a result of Brexit, the UK has tried to ensure that it can tap into its former regional sphere of influence to bolster trade relations and its global clout. Meanwhile, GCC states have sought to secure their own economic relations with London, which has thus far helped to secure Britain’s political support.
Britain’s advancing foreign policy in the Gulf has also coincided with the perceived U.S. withdrawal from the region. As Gulf states who were traditionally allied with the U.S. have faced frosty relations with Washington over various issues, such as long-standing signals the U.S. wishes to reduce its security presence in the region and Biden’s botched withdrawal from Afghanistan, this has created a vacuum which Britain has largely been willing to fill.
Johnson’s successor in the Conservative Party will therefore likely continue Britain’s stance of deepening trade and military relations in the Gulf, meaning that a free trade deal between the Gulf and Britain will likely still be a key priority for Britain. Even if there is a substantial change within Britain’s government, such as an electoral victory from the opposition Labour Party, the economic links between London and the GCC will likely remain relevant while Britain remains outside the EU.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Gulf International Forum.