British companies failing to capitalise on GCC opportunities, Liam Fox says

Businesses that recognise the shift in mindset in the Gulf are the ones who will benefit, former trade secretary says

Liam Fox at Fairmont Bab Al Bahr Hotel, Abu Dhabi, in January 2022. Khushnum Bhandari / The National
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The Gulf has witnessed a “fundamental shift” in business by seeking joint ventures but British companies are failing to capitalise on the opportunities, a former UK trade secretary has said.

Liam Fox told a fringe event at the Conservative Party conference that companies had previously regarded the Gulf as a “giant ATM” to fund investments.

But the region had substantially changed, with Gulf Co-operation Council countries, in particular, demanding joint ventures with investment in intellectual property.

“Far too few companies in the UK yet understand that JV is way forward,” Mr Fox told the event, hosted in Manchester by the Bahrain embassy. “We're not getting enough British firms coming into the joint ventures.

“To be able to get there you have to understand the economic shift in mindset that’s happened and the companies which understand that best are the ones who will benefit.”

There had also been a significant political shift in the region with a “huge difference in perception” on America’s standing.

Mr Fox said US legislators “do not understand that they have diminished status”, which was “dangerous”.

This should have presented an opportunity for the UK to “fill that gap, but sadly we’ve not done that and we’ve missed a great opportunity”, he said.

“It’s sad that the UK has not played a bigger role in facilitating these things,” Mr Fox said. “Our export shelves would be stacked high if we could only understand the export opportunities for UK.”

Analysts say Brexit and the Covid-19 pandemic shifted Britain’s focus away from the region, where it has strong historic ties.

But those exports could improve when talks conclude over a free trade agreement between Britain and the GCC.

The government is committed to giving businesses a platform to have a “strong presence” overseas, the Prime Minister's official spokesman said in response to a question from The National.

“We will obviously continue to ensure British companies have opportunities to explore and have a strong presence abroad,” he said. “I think we’ve seen that in some of the PM’s recent travel whether that’s Japan, the US or elsewhere. We’ll continue to have discussions with all countries and regions.”

The spokesman declined to provide an update on the free trade negotiations between the UK and the GCC.

Sheikh Fawaz bin Mohamed Al Khalifa, Bahrain’s ambassador to Britain, told the audience in the discussion, titled “Beyond the FTA”, that more work was needed to get the deal done.

Part of that was getting agreement from all six GCC countries, but when a deal does come into place “usually trade doubles in three to five years”, Sheikh Fawaz said.

The UK, which does $30 billion of trade with the GCC, would pass its dealings with the EU if a deal was struck, he said.

Britain would also significantly benefit from a full-time Middle East and North Africa minister after the post was axed in early 2022, with the role now shared between politicians, a former UK ambassador told another fringe event.

Sir John Jenkins, former envoy to Saudi Arabia, Libya, Syria and Iraq, said having a minister focused on just the Mena area was “incredibly important”.

“Company executives are visiting the region and they're building relationships, but our ministers have stopped doing that,” Sir John told the event hosted by the Conservative Middle East Council.

“You can’t overestimate this.”

But he praised King Charles III’s contacts and understanding of the Middle East.

“The monarchy is a great asset to this country in the region and the king has developed a whole set of relationships which really gives us continuity,” Sir John said.

He said UK politicians were too preoccupied with domestic issues and it was “hard to think of Britain’s place in world”.

“I think the days when the western powers set the agenda are gone,” he added.

Updated: October 02, 2023, 12:11 PM