Bahrain seeks new era of trade between UK and GCC

A free trade deal with Britain is considered one of the most prized pacts for the region, Bahraini minister says

Bahrain's Minister of Industry and Commerce Zayed bin Rashid Al Zayani said the future of trade between the UK and Gulf nations is bright. Photo: Ministry of Industry and Advanced Technology
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Bahrain’s industry minister has called for a new era of commercial partnership with the UK, helped by the potential for growth from the participation of women, entrepreneurs and smaller businesses.

Zayed bin Rashid Al Zayani said the much-anticipated trade pact under negotiation between Britain and the Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) is set to be among the “most prosperous” deals for the region.

Speaking at the Arab British Chamber of Commerce’s economic conference in London, he said that, given the right approach, economies can overcome a wide range of challenges. In the midst of rising inflation, energy crises, geopolitical conflicts, climate change, food insecurity and supply chain disruptions, Mr Al Zayani said the future of trade can remain bright.

“How will our economies look and who will be the drivers?” he said. “We have to transition from traditional trading to a new landscape, driven by innovation and technology and led by entrepreneurs, SMEs and more female participation.”

“Given the history and volume the UK was identified as one of seven top priority countries for FTAs on the GCC level,” he added.

“With English being our second language in the GCC, and with a huge British community residing and working in the GCC, we see this as one of the most prosperous FTAs.”

The hoped for deal was among the most talked about topics at the ABCC’s gathering on Wednesday.

Bahrain has earmarked August 2023 as the deadline for a deal to be agreed between the UK and the GCC.

‘Substance over speed’

Tom Wintle, the UK’s chief negotiator in trade talks with the GCC, gave an update on the progress of the process following the conclusion of the first round of meetings.

He said the UK’s partnerships with the GCC nations — Oman, Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the UAE — encompass extensive political, commercial, financial security, education, and cultural ties. Mr Wintle said a deal would build on the existing ties the UK has with companies and individuals in the six nations.

He said the benefits of a deal would flow “in both directions”, as the UK and GCC economies can be viewed as complementing each other. He noted that GCC members are “absolutely key partners for the UK”.

Mr Wintle, who works at the UK’s Department for International Trade, pointed to the “enormous flows of imports, exports and investment in both directions” which benefit more than 10,000 British small and medium-sized firms who send their products to the region.

“However, there is much more we can do,” the chief negotiator said. “And a free trade agreement between the UK and the GCC is a vehicle to greatly increase those ways of trade and investment. From food and drink to financial services and everything in between it is an opportunity to remove barriers to encourage investments and to create opportunities in the UK and the GCC countries large and small to grow and to thrive.”

Mr Wintle cited government projections for trade between Britain and the GCC to grow 16 per cent by 2035 if a deal is signed. But he said if negotiators are ambitious and determined to strike a far-reaching agreement, the potential gains could be far greater for both sides.

He added that the UK is committed to moving at pace in discussions but would not be rushed into signing a haphazard pact, saying “we must focus on the substance over the speed”.

‘Arabs look to the UK with confidence’

Mr Wintle’s promotion of the benefits of a UK-GCC deal was echoed by Sameer Abdulla Nass, president of the Union of Arab Chambers.

In a speech, he told the audience that in the post-pandemic, post-Brexit climate the UK would hugely benefit from strengthened ties with Middle Eastern nations.

Mr Nass said the from the Atlantic Ocean stretching to the Gulf, there are “huge opportunities” for investment and trade in countries rich in natural resources.

“The majority of the periodic table of resources are available in those countries,” he said.

“I feel it's time for the UK to take the opportunity to be a partner rather than consider the market of some of the Arab world as a consumer, a target for productions and services.

“I think partnership is about to take place to help the UK and the Arab world together as partners.”

“The sovereign funds of the Arab countries are looking to the UK with confidence and to support the economy of the UK with investment throughout all sectors of the country, [from] sports to technologies, logistics, tourism,” he added.

Mr Nass likened Saudi Arabia to “a big giant waking up” as it seeks to promote itself as a major destination to international tourists and investors. He said this change in direction from Riyadh would help bring about a “huge transformation in the Arab world”.

Britain, he said, would reap the benefits from such changes in the regions through a deal with the GCC, and “it’s about time” for such an agreement to be struck.

“The Arabs are eager to partner together with UK companies and the UK government to look at how we can move forward,” he said.

“Our relationship with the UK needs no introduction, it’s been there for hundreds of years and I think we can build up on this relationship together.”

Updated: November 02, 2022, 2:55 PM