Does Brexit pave the way for a new UK partnership with the Middle East?
Brexit is about to become a reality. Since Boris Johnson won a sweeping mandate at the UK general election, Parliament – deadlocked for over a year over leaving the European Union – passed the necessary legislation in just three days. The UK will leave the EU on 31 January.
The end of the UK’s 46-year membership of the regional bloc means that Britain is in search of new sources of trade, influence and alliances. The Middle East, whose modern history is so entwined with Britain’s, will be a natural focus for Boris Johnson and his new government.
Even before Brexit formally happens, we see how key questions about the UK’s relationship with the region are being tested in the Iran crisis. This perhaps gives us some clues to the UK’s future positioning; rhetorical support for the US, while sticking to the substance of the EU policy. But the UK will come under increasing pressure from Washington to support US positions more actively. Until the UK’s future trade choices are settled – and in particular until an EU and perhaps a US trade deal are signed – British Ministers and officials will spend a lot of diplomatic ingenuity and effort trying to postpone the choice.
In fact, the UK has been re-positioning itself with Arab partners since the Brexit referendum in 2016. Britain opposed the EU’s listing of Saudi Arabia as a threat because of alleged lax controls on terrorism financing and money laundering. The UK invested diplomatic effort in trying to persuade Germany not to end military support to the kingdom. The UK has stepped up its trade diplomacy in the region, including visits by then-Prime Minister Theresa May.
We can expect that focus to continue. The UK will want and need to deepen its commercial relationships in the Gulf and the wider region, especially in those countries where it has strong cultural and historic ties. Saudi Arabia and the UAE, as the richest countries in the region, will be particular priorities, and we can expect to see the UK seek to negotiate bilateral trade deals there. This presents opportunities for the flourishing regional trade with the UK.
Take health, for example. UK Ministers will be leading a huge trade delegation to the Arab Health forum in Dubai, focused on selling British firms’ expertise to meet the growing Middle East demand for quality healthcare, driven by challenges such as aging populations, rising life expectancy and clinical workforce shortages.
UK MedTech companies have been steadily growing their footprint in the Middle East and the latest figures from UK Government show there were nearly $250million of UK health exports and 19 new joint projects in the Middle East in 2018 and this figure is set to grow. After Brexit, the region will be a key market for UK companies seeking to maintain their position as world-class leaders in healthcare, medical devices and digital technologies.
This modern commercial agenda, rather than oil – the UK imports most of its oil from Norway and Nigeria – is where the post-Brexit UK interests in the region lie.
What evidence should we look for of British commitment to the region? We should expect the UK to continue to support humanitarian action; the UK has been one of the main funders of Syrian refugee support. Political and diplomatic engagement will also be an important test of the commitment to ‘Global Britain’; continued engagement on the Middle East peace process, for example, or fully implementing the Stockholm agreement on Yemen.
The UK will want to strengthen bilateral cooperation in areas like defence, even in the face of political criticism at home; Britain’s defence and diplomatic assets are central to its claim to a global role. We should start to see evidence of this commitment in the UK Spending Review later this year; the UK Defence Secretary is already saying that the UK will have to be more independent of the US militarily.
Long-term British allies in the region could benefit from the UK’s necessarily global focus after Brexit. The UK wants trade deals, and needs to chart a course between the EU and US. That brings opportunities – commercial, strategic and political for the region. Understanding how the UK will redefine its relationships with the EU and the US through trade talks, and the critical decision points where the strategic choices will be made, is crucial for the governments and businesses of the region to influence and profit from the Brexit revolution.