By Alicia Buller
Tony Abbott has proven a controversial choice for the UK's post-Brexit trade board
The appointment of controversial ex-Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott to the UK’s Board of Trade (BoT) is unlikely to significantly affect GCC-Britain trade relations, according to experts.
“I don’t think Tony Abbott matters much in terms of where Britain and the Gulf go after Brexit,” said Scott Lucas, professor of international politics at the UK’s University of Birmingham.
“The important thing is that the Board of Trade appoints people with knowledge – whether that’s knowledge of a sector or a specific geographic area… it would be beneficial to get someone who has knowledge of what the Gulf countries actually want as that varies from country to country,” the professor told Arabian Business.
Lucas added that the UK trade board would benefit from a new appointment that combines Middle East trade expertise with diplomatic relations knowledge “as there is no longer a single Gulf because of the major rifts between the states.”
Abbott has been appointed joint President of Britain’s relaunched BoT, tasked with sealing deals for Britain around the world, according to the UK’s Sun newspaper.
The BoT’s role is to “champion exports and inward and outward investment to deliver economic growth and prosperity” and it has traditionally been made up of British political and business figures.
A divisive figure with hard-right views on climate change and same-sex marriage, Abbott led Australia from 2013 to 2015 and was a close ally to the UK during his premiership.
Britain’s shadow trade secretary, Emily Thornberry, has condemned Abbott’s appointment to a senior trade role, calling the former Australian PM a “Trump-worshipping misogynist”.
While making no comment on the reports about Abbott’s role, UK trade secretary Liz Truss announced appointments to 11 new business advisory committees on Wednesday, which she said would be “bringing British industry from farmers to carmakers closer to our negotiations”.
Chris Doyle, director of the London-headquartered Council for Arab-British Understanding (Caabu), told Arabian Business that Abbott’s appointment was likely arranged to help leverage deals with Anglophone countries, such as Australia, New Zealand and Canada.
“In that sense, it’s not a surprise that they’ve gone for an Australian, however, it is a surprise they have gone for someone like Abbott,” said Doyle.
“After all, he has said himself in the past that he ‘doesn’t do’ diplomacy.”
However, Doyle added that Abbott’s hard-right political views could hold him in good stead to negotiate with the current White House administration.
“If Abbott is going to be party to talks with the Trump office then he shares many of their views, such as climate change denial… he may well fit into that environment.”
Doyle suggested that the UK BoT would also benefit from a specialised Middle East advisor.
“I wonder if there will be someone joining that board of advisors with strong links to the Gulf,” he said. “It would be a good idea to bring in someone with Eastern experience and connections.”
Doyle added: “I suspect all the existing Gulf agreements are going to roll on.”
According to Lucas, regardless of Abbott’s controversial appointment, the fundamental chaos of Britain’s Brexit departure remains.
“The main point is that the UK lacks leverage – when you venture into trade deals, you’ve got to bring something to the table. The UK is heading towards the cliff- edge of no-deal Brexit in December and, when it does, it is likely to go into a very deep recession,” the professor said.
“The fact is the UK as one single country has much less weight and influence than the 27 remaining countries of the European Union (EU). Appointing Tony Abbott doesn’t change that fact,” Lucas said.
“I so far see no sign that UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson is serious about negotiating with the EU before deadline,” he said.
While it was an EU member, the UK was automatically part of around 40 trade deals which the EU had struck with more than 70 countries.
So far, just 19 of these deals, covering 50 countries or territories, have been rolled over. This represents around eight percent of total UK trade, including Switzerland, South Africa, South Korea, Morocco and Lebanon.