Prioritise a Gulf free trade deal and ascend to Arabian Heights

As the Leave campaign argued during the run-up to the referendum, the UK’s future economic exploration, academic opportunity, and travel and cultural discoveries will lie with other parts of the world as well as Europe. This will also be the case when it comes to our diplomatic and military allies in the Gulf region, such as the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Since the foundation of the UAE in December 1971, the UK has been a trusted and valued friend, resulting in a thriving bilateral relationship covering economic, strategic, and cultural interests that benefit both countries. A recent trade delegation to the UAE led by former deputy mayor of London, Sir Edward Lister, has thrown its weight behind an ambitious new goal of £25bn annual trade by 2020, after the previous target of £12bn was hit two years early under David Cameron’s government. Areas of mutual foreign direct investment could include Dubai’s Expo 2020 (an international trade and business exhibition), as well as innovative technologies and services across sectors such as healthcare, Islamic finance, clean energy, exports, and SMEs. Similarly, the Prime Minister’s visit to the Gulf region last December focused heavily on trade and future economic cooperation, signalling the British government’s long term internationalist objectives. Acknowledged on Lister’s trip was the fact that, while the UAE is Britain’s fourteenth biggest export market, an even bigger prize could be at stake post-Brexit: the other five member countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). According to the UK’s Department for International Trade, trade between the wider Gulf region and the UK was worth $33bn in 2014 – more than the UK’s trade with India or China. Furthermore, trade between the UK and the GCC has soared by 185 per cent between 1999 and 2015, with the UAE in particular emerging as the UK’s third largest export partner outside Europe, and the eleventh largest trading partner for the UK overall. With the triggering of Article 50 and the snap election now firmly out of the way, the road ahead for a post-Brexit free-trade agreement with the UAE and the rest of the GCC would be truly unique. It could serve as an exciting example of how the UK can once again rediscover its global vocation. As recently as March of this year, the GCC hinted that, once the UK formally leaves the EU, the country could secure a deal collectively with Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, and Oman, in addition to the UAE. Once an agreement is in place, mutual trade will grow extensively, with British products given preference in Gulf markets over other European products – and, conversely, with Gulf-made products streaming into the UK in areas such as aluminium, petrochemicals, and oil derivatives. A quick deal would shore up the UK’s place as a key trading destination for the GCC. It would also highlight the Brussels’ price discrimination policy towards non-EU imports – a protectionist mechanism that sits uneasily with advocates of global trade – and show that Britain refuses to abide by it. If Brexit is to work – and I believe it will – withdrawing from the internal market both physically and in terms of mindset is absolutely crucial. We need to do what we do best, but do it independently and across the globe. Buy and sell, negotiate and trade, invent and innovate. The future is in our hands. It is up to us to make it work – and the Gulf is the perfect place to start.

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