May's visit underlines UK's desire to be 'partner of choice' for Gulf states

Dramatic economic and political changes are binding the UK and Gulf states tighter than ever.


Partners: British PM Theresa May and Saudi King Salman.

Partners: British PM Theresa May and Saudi King Salman.

GCC-UK partnerships are about to get a whole lot tighter. While the UK has long had close connections with the six Gulf states, current economic and political circumstances are drawing them closer together than ever.

In the space of a week, Prime Minister Theresa May visited Saudi Arabia and attended a UK-Qatar Business and Investment Forum in London. It is no coincidence that those meetings occurred in the same week period that she triggered Article 50, which allows Britain to begin the two-year process of exiting the European Union.

May has made it clear she wants the UK to be “the partner of choice” for Gulf states as they reform their economies to adapt to a new norm for oil prices. Ahead of the Saudi visit, May said she was looking to use the “immense potential for Saudi investment to provide a boost to the British economy”.

The kingdom is already Britain’s largest trading partner in the Middle East. At the same time, Saudi Arabia is boosting its foreign investments as part of its economic reform plan, Vision 2030.

May offered the UK’s expertise to help the kingdom modernise its economy. Foreign and trade ministers from both nations will hold meetings twice a year, while UK tax and privatisation experts will advise Saudi officials as they reform the economy - potentially including the Saudi Aramco initial public offering.

During her visit, May lobbied the kingdom to list its state oil giant on the London Stock Exchange, a boost that would help politicians argue that the UK is open for business and remains a financial hub as it leaves the EU.

Diversification is also occurring in the Qatar-UK relationship, with the Gulf state seeking to broaden its investments away from trophy assets and property to industry and regional areas of the UK. Despite the softening pound affecting current investments, Qatar announced at the end of March that it would plough another $6.23bn into the UK within five years.

Private Qatari firms also are keenly exploring expansion into the UK to take advantage of not only the better exchange rate but the country’s more welcoming approach to foreign investors amid uncertainty over the impact of Brexit.

Underpinning much of the UK’s strong relationship with the Gulf is its security. “Gulf security is our security; Gulf prosperity is our prosperity,” May said during a visit to Bahrain in December.

The heightened issue of terrorism has seen her government, despite protests, back the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, and last week May offered UK expertise to help reform the Saudi Ministry of Defence.

May has also insisted that strong security and economic ties with the GCC gives the UK greater leeway to discuss social issues. Her decision not to wear a headscarf during her visit to the conservative kingdom, despite her own country’s travel advice, must be noted. She also met with the first female Saudi minister, following her historic moment as the first woman to address the Gulf Cooperation Council in December.

The lack of commentary from within the kingdom about May not wearing a headscarf suggests either a gradual cultural awakening taking place there is settling some conservatives, or, and this is perhaps more likely, any opposition was quietened as a yardstick for May’s public silence on the kingdom’s human rights record – something that drew consternation from many in her home country.

As business, defence and cultural ties bind ever tighter, the GCC can expect more visits from the British PM.

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