Revamped UAE-UK Business Council boosts trade ties

Thought leadership forum's transformation comes as relations between the two countries rapidly develop

Bradley Jones, executive director of the UAE-UK Business Council, says Brexit has 'unfettered the UK from some of the constraints' of the past. Mark Chilvers for The National
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The UAE-UK Business Council is a key pillar of the rapidly developing bilateral trade and investment relationship, which was confirmed in last week's joint communique during a meeting between Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, and UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

The Business Council supports the interests of both countries, with two new co-chairmen in the form of Ahmed Ali Al Sayegh, chairman of Abu Dhabi Global Markets and Minister of State representing the UAE, and Lord Edward Udny-Lister, former special envoy to the Gulf, looking after the UK.

"The Business Council plays an important role in shaping the future trajectory of our bilateral relationship," Lord Udny-Lister, a former chief of staff to Mr Johnson, said at a recent seminar hosted by the Emirates Society and Business Council.

"This is an important time for our relationship, which has been getting stronger and stronger. The 50th anniversary is going to be a great opportunity for us to take this whole relationship to its next step."

Lord Udny-Lister said a voice on a bilateral ministerial Joint Economic Committee gives the Business Council "an opportunity to report to the relevant ministers on our progress" and "help influence the trade relationships as they're developed, to try to identify the barriers, get through those barriers and work out how we can improve everything".

While the countries have agreed to expand their Sovereign Investment Partnership with Mubadala Investment Company already investing £10 billion ($13.71 billion) in addition to its existing £800 million commitment, they also established a new Partnership for the Future to strengthen the deep and historic relations the two nations share.

The aim is to secure a UK trade deal with the GCC Customs Union in the future, something Bradley Jones, executive director of the UK-UAE Business Council, says will offer two key elements: reducing tariff barriers and removing non-tariff barriers.

The big prize of a future trade relationship – and this applies in both directions - is reducing non-tariff barriers
Bradley Jones, UK-UAE Business Council

“The big prize of a future trade relationship – and this applies in both directions - is reducing non-tariff barriers,” Mr Jones told The National.

“This is all the niggling regulatory barriers that make it a little bit difficult to do business in the other market. Addressing them will help to increase trade.”

Looking ahead, the Business Council has booked a key location for its 10th annual plenary session in October when it is the UAE’s turn to hold the event. The meeting will be hosted at the Mohammed bin Rashid Aerospace Hub at its Dubai South headquarters next to the Expo 2020 Dubai site.

“This is somewhere that will really show our delegates flying in from the UK the new UAE: ambitious, thinking big, innovative,” Mr Jones said.

This is a key time for the Business Council, which has undergone a revamp over the past 12 months, as the organisation looks to enhance the already close trade and investment ties between the UAE and UK.

With relations warming between the two countries, Mr Jones says it is “probably no coincidence" the Business Council transformation happened after Brexit.

“[Brexit] has unfettered the UK from some of the constraints it had in the past,” Mr Jones said.

“The fact it can now have a different kind of dialogue with the UAE on this trade and investment relationship makes it more important to have a Business Council that can be a voice of business at this time.”

On the UAE side, the Abraham Accords, a historic resolution made by the Emirates a year ago to formally establish ties with Israel, was an indication of the country’s attempt to redefine its trading relationship with countries around the world.

“The Business Council can play a role there in helping to steer some of that interest towards the UK,” Mr Jones said. “So the relaunch of our role came at the right time.”

Boosting the volume of bilateral trade and investment

The UK is now the UAE’s 25th largest trading partner, according to the UK's Department of International Trade, with more than £18.6bn in bilateral trade in 2019, up by £11.9bn since 2011.

While Covid-19 caused a dip, with the figure dropping to £12bn last year, the Business Council’s aim is to increase the volume of bilateral trade and investment to £25bn in the next few years, with an increasing proportion coming from new and emerging industries.

First established 10 years ago by both governments, the organisation filled a gap in the market for companies looking to set up business in the respective countries.

While government departments such as the DIT supported market entry into the UAE for British companies and the UAE embassy in London helped companies in the Emirates enter Britain, the governments felt a Business Council could add value in a different way.

“Rather than helping individual companies with market entry, it was considered a thought leadership organisation that advises both governments of the issues, concerns and interests uppermost in the minds of companies on both sides,” Mr Jones said.

UK-based Mr Jones took on the role of heading up the organisation in September last year, when both nations decided to beef up the council’s role to help it deliver “more impact”.

As well as acting as a thought leadership organisation that discusses market access issues, regulatory barriers and emerging opportunities, the organisation also wanted to deliver more events, have more active working groups that can highlight opportunities for collaboration and ultimately “play a more pivotal role in the in the bilateral relationship” as it strives to reduce barriers to trade and investment.

Giving businesses a voice at a government-to-government level

For members, this provides a unique opportunity to have a voice not only at a business-to-business level but also at a government-to-government one.

Members can meet the co-chairmen at the plenary meeting in October to voice any concerns, which are then shared at government level at the Joint Economic Committee – an annual ministerial meeting between the UK and UAE – a week later.

“It’s not just about raising profile, but having a voice, and making sure that concerns are heard by the right interlocutors, having access to the right people and making the wider business community in both countries aware of what they're doing,“ Mr Jones said. "We're just a really useful conduit for making those concerns and interests felt at a government-to-government level."

While some barriers might not be a matter of great concern now, they might impede the growth of future industries, Mr Jones said, such as artificial intelligence.

“This is an emerging industry, and the ethics of AI and the regulatory architecture around AI is still being evolved. Making sure the right rules are in place to enable AI-related trade flows between the UK and UAE to happen will be good,” he said.

He also pointed to a post-Brexit decision by the UK’s Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport to ease the flow of data between the UK and key markets, with the Dubai International Financial Centre one of those pioneer markets.

“It's those hidden things like data flows and emerging industries where negotiating a trade agreement now and getting those frameworks and rules right will help the growth of those emerging industries,” he said.

Expanding the SME membership base

When Mr Jones – who started his career as a teacher in Fujairah before joining the diplomatic corps and later focusing on business development in the private sector – joined the Business Council he spent the first few months assessing what member companies wanted from the organisation.

This was key, he said, because as a membership-led organisation the fees are the main source of income.

“Everything we do has to be in the interests of both UAE member companies and stakeholders, as well as the UK side – it has to be balanced,” he said.

The organisation also decided to include SMEs in its membership, creating a new tier specifically for that segment as well as not-for-profits and academic institutions.

While large corporates pay £12,000 or Dh60,00 a year, SMEs pay £3,000 or Dh15,000, and partner organisations, such as the Emirates Society and the British Business Groups, pay nothing because there is a reciprocal relationship.

As an invitation-only organisation, growing from fewer than 30 members last year to more than 40 today, the Business Council hopes to have more than 50 by the end of the financial year in March 2022, with most of the growth sourced from the SME category.

“We’re keeping our membership quite small, because we have a bespoke relationship with every member and we only invite companies if they can contribute to the thought leadership as well as the discussions and ideas,” Mr Jones said.

While its membership base includes heavyweights such as Abu Dhabi Investment Office, Adnoc, BP, DP World, HSBC, Barclays, Emirates and Etihad, its new members include Heriot University and Birmingham University, as well as FAB Bank and the SME Everfi, an edtech company providing workplace training in the UAE.

Identifying emerging trends and opportunities in new industries

The council also has a new set of working groups focusing on areas such as education, culture and skills, life sciences, energy and sustainable growth, innovation and future technology, as well as advanced manufacturing and the decarbonisation of industry and infrastructure.

The working groups have been given until March next year to identify barriers to doing business, as well as emerging trends and opportunities.

They must also deliver workshops, online seminars and produce white papers that inform the discussion at the Joint Economic Committee and are also disseminated for wider knowledge.

“The working group must also be additional to what is happening at a government-to-government level,” Mr Jones said.

The life sciences working group, for example, decided not to focus on pharmaceutical regulation, because that dialogue already exists.

“We asked the UAE ministry of economy and the British embassy what we can focus on and they said mental health and well-being, because both the UAE and the UK are doing amazing things in [that area],” Mr Jones said.

While the executive spent the first year of his job establishing the new version of the Business Council, the next 12 months will be about setting the agenda, and then driving that forward.

“We're going to look at new and emerging industries, where we can drive the thought leadership – areas such as AI, agritech, space and fintech,” he said.

“There are so many new industries emerging and we want to be at the beginning of those dialogues and driving momentum by bringing together thought leaders and stakeholders from both sides.”

Updated: September 24, 2021, 10:14 AM