On the face of it, of course, this is just one in a series of trips by May to salvage the UK’s trade ties amidst Brexit uncertainty. In a statement about the visit released this past weekend, May emphasized the importance of cooperation between Britain and the GCC in the realms of counter-terrorism, Gulf investment in cities across the UK, and British investment that will hopefully help the Gulf states pursue major reforms.
Given the recent history of Bahrain, however, such high-profile engagement was bound to spark controversy. A number of campaign groups have urged May not to ignore human rights issues in pursuit of free trade deals with Middle Eastern countries. Amnesty International has been one of the most outspoken, saying in a statement ahead of May’s visit that British ministers have acted like “overexcited cheerleaders” for Bahrain’s “woefully inadequate” reforms since the 2011 crackdown on the country’s democracy movement. Amnesty notably questioned the effectiveness and independence of two UK-backed human rights institutions in Bahrain, which the NGO described as “PR exercises.”
Downing Street obviously anticipated these responses, emphasizing in its statement: “We don’t uphold our values and human rights by turning our back on this issue. We achieve far more by stepping up, engaging with these countries and working with them.”
There is certainly cause for cautious optimism in the fact that May is not just the first British PM but also the first woman leader to attend a GCC summit. The occasion will is not only an opportunity for British and Gulf businesses, but also a chance for the UK to effectively broach touchier subjects with the GCC member states.
First and foremost, though, will be the hunt for business prospects. London has reportedly identified £30 billion of “high-value opportunities for British businesses across fifteen different sectors over the next five years in the Gulf.” May hopes to form a new joint working group with GCC members to examine a possible new UK-Gulf free trade agreement, and her government has emphasized that the Gulf states are collectively Britain’s largest investor and the second biggest non-European export market.
That the UK and Gulf states like Saudi Arabia already enjoy strong trade ties is going to become increasingly important as Riyadh and the region’s other oil-dependent nations try to diversify their economies. UK exports to Saudi Arabia exceeded £5.5 billion last year, making Britain one of the Saudi’s top 10 trading partners. There are more than 200 joint venture British-Saudi businesses inside the Kingdom, worth more than £17.5 billion. These companies and others employ about 30,000 British nationals.
The hope on both sides is that this cooperation will expand further as a result of the Vision 2030 program, which seeks to promote cultural openness within the Kingdom in addition to reducing dependence on oil and attracting foreign investment. The privatizations and non-oil growth the program is aiming for can only be successful with the help of outside backers, and Saudi leaders see Britain as one of the countries whose expertise and financial clout will be integral to bringing their work to fruition.
With her eagerness for closer economic ties, May evidently feels the same way. The British PM specifically mentioned Vision 2030 in her speech to the GCC leaders, announcing the historic Mansion House in London would host an event on the Gulf’s economic transformation programs next year. In addition to bringing down trade barriers, she also insisted the UK would be the region’s “partner of choice” in pursuing reforms. With so many trade and investment opportunities at stake, a closer relationship is obviously in the self-interest of both sides.
May’s speech might have been focused on the financials, but human rights campaign groups should not dismiss her presence as nothing more than a favor to business interests. By engaging in trade talks with the GCC member states, the UK does more than boost its credibility, its capital, and its standing as a key ally. It also puts itself in a more strategic position when it comes to pushing these nations forward in spheres beyond trade and investment.
For one, May’s very participation in the summit is in and of itself a repudiation of the limits placed on female participation in political life in the region. Beyond that, increasing Britain’s economic clout among the Gulf emirs will make any statement on rights or norms more impactful. These countries are far more likely to listen to a partner sitting down together at the same table than they are to an outsider shouting at them from the next room. Just across the water from Bahrain, Iran provides a ready example of why that latter approach doesn’t work.
Of course, it will take years and likely decades of reforms before those living in the Persian Gulf states enjoy women’s rights and freedom of expression the way they are taken for granted in places like Britain. However, the seeds of change are there, as promising recent events like the anniversary of Saudi female participation in elections go to show. By casting herself as an indispensable partner, Theresa May is setting herself up to help those seeds grow more in the future.