Talks to boost trade by approximately $2 billion a year between members of the six Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states and the UK are underway today in Riyadh but little progress is expected on the major issue of human rights.
UK Trade Secretary Anne-Marie Trevelyan is in the Saudi capital where she will launch free trade negotiations with GCC states, made up of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
The GCC trading block is the UK's seventh largest export market, representing some $41 billion in annual bilateral trade. Demand for goods and services in the region is expected to grow by 35 per cent to $981 billion by 2035, according to the UK.
A free trade deal is also expected to open the door to increased investment from the Gulf, supporting and creating jobs across the country.
"Today marks the next significant milestone in our 5-star year of trade as we step up the UK's close relationship with the Gulf," said Trevelyan. "This trade deal has the potential to support jobs from Dover to Doha, growing our economy at home, building vital green industries and supplying innovative services to the Gulf."
Tariffs on British goods that could be slashed include cereals, which currently face a tariff of up to 25 per cent; chocolate, up to 15 per cent; baking products, up to 12 per cent; sweet biscuits, up to ten per cent; and smoked salmon, which has a five per cent tariff at present.
Gulf investments supported over 25,000 UK jobs in 2019 – a number that has tripled over the previous decade – and analysis shows the East Midlands, West Midlands, North East and Yorkshire and the Humber will be in line for the greatest proportional gains. The deal would also be estimated to boost the economies of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland by almost £500 million ($612 million) collectively.
Negotiations will skirt around the issue of human rights. With the ongoing war in Yemen, the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and the arrest and detention of political opponents, Riyadh's record on human rights is a major source of concern, as is the UAE's crackdown on dissidents, and the treatment of foreign workers across the GCC.
Trevelyan appeared to sidestep concerns over human rights saying that expressing any UK "anxieties" over the issue would remain the responsibility of the Foreign Office. But enhanced trade links would allow the UK to engage more effectively on rights issues, she added.
Paul Nowak, deputy general secretary of the Trades Union Congress (TUC), said the government should not "entertain" a deal without addressing reform. "The Gulf states' appalling record on human rights and workers' rights is no secret, and yet the government is rushing into trade talks, no questions asked," he is reported saying.