Making social science accessible

09 Feb 2024

UK in the world

Diana Galeeva highlights that discussions of the UK’s post-Brexit foreign policy trajectory have often omitted the Gulf states, despite increased economic ties with the region. 

The 2016 Brexit vote signalled the start of a new era in the UK’s foreign policy trajectory. The introduction of the term ‘Global Britain‘ was intended to signal that post-Brexit Britain would look beyond the EU to the wider world. The idea has since been difficult to pin down, and it has been even more difficult to identify what it means in terms of results.

Analysis of the UK’s post-Brexit foreign policy trajectory has often prioritised the Euro-Atlantic and Anglosphere over the Gulf. This is despite Theresa May saying that “Gulf security is our security”. But what role is there for the often-overlooked Gulf in the direction of the UK’s post-Brexit foreign policy?

The Integrated Review Refresh 2023 specifies ‘the need to forge stronger bonds in […], the Gulf’. It also notes the significance of the UK’s connections with the GCC countries and Israel, ‘as key regional and broader geopolitical actors’.

Individual partnership agreements with the GCC member states were launched after Brexit, which show their importance for the UK’s trajectory. Saudi Arabia and the UK launched a Strategic Partnership Council to develop collaboration in the fields of energy, defence, trade and investment, for example. And in 2023, the UK has launched an annual Strategic Dialogue with Qatar. After the Brexit vote, Qatar pledged more than £10 billion in security, defence and trade investments.

At the same time, the strategic plans of the GCC, such as Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030, Qatar’s National Vision 2030 and Kuwait’s Vision 2035 also reference these collaborations with the UK as important.

The UK recognises the economic importance of these actors. During the UK’s recent Global Investment Summit, Rishi Sunak stressed that for the UK, it was essential to “reorient ourselves to places like the Middle East, Asia Pacific” when looking for investments. And there have been particularly high profile investments from the GCC countries, such as in Manchester City football club, owned by Sheikh Mansour, the current vice president and deputy prime minister of the United Arab Emirates, and the 2021 takeover of Newcastle United FC by the Public Investment Fund of Saudi Arabia.

The UK approached the Gulf countries about signing a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) after leaving the EU, with an FTA under negotiation since 2021. In the long run, a deal with the Gulf countries is estimated by government analysis to increase trade by up to 16%, and add at least £1.6 billion a year to the UK economy.

UK trade with the Gulf has increased since Brexit. In 2005, the UK’s total trade volume with the GCC was $13.2 billion; by 2010, it had increased to $19.1 billion. Following the referendum, it further increased: by 2019 it was around $61 billion; by 2022, it was worth £61.3 billion, making the UK the seventh biggest export market for the Gulf countries.

Meanwhile, the six Gulf monarchies jointly are a major export market for the UK, making them important for the UK’s energy security and major sources of investments in British business and real estate.

Efforts to end energy imports from Russia have contributed to the UK’s efforts to import fossil fuels from Bahrain, the UAE, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Algeria, and Libya, which were worth £19.3bn in 2022. The GCC countries remain key energy partners – especially the UAE, Qatar and Saudi Arabia – in addition to cooperations in renewable energy, carbon capture and storage.

Military, defence and security collaborations have also enlarged in recent years. The UK’s historic and current influence has been essential, with most of the Gulf elites having studied at British military academies. King Hamad of Bahrain, President of the UAE Mohammed Bin Zayed, and Shaykh Tamim of Qatar, graduated from Sandhurst’s Officer Program.

Since Brexit, Britain and Bahrain have enlarged their military collaboration. In April 2018, for example, Britain declared that it was opening a new naval base at Mina Salman Port in Bahrain, named after HMS Juffair. And in 2021, British and Omani forces carried out joint military exercises.

Despite all this, most discussions of post-Brexit UK foreign policy prioritise Euro-Atlantic relations and collaborations with the EU. Yet, relations with the Middle East, especially the GCC countries, remain strategically important to the UK. A better framework of analysis would divide UK foreign policy into layers: firstly, by discussing the geopolitics (such as relations with the EU and US), and secondly, by studying economic ties, where the GCC countries have seized a strategic and essential role. The latter in particular should be discussed more prominently in analyses of the UK’s post-Brexit trajectory.

By Dr Diana Galeeva, Academic Visitor, Oxford School of Global and Area Studies (OSGA), University of Oxford.

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