Brexit may have come at the most fortunate time for the GCC.
As the Gulf seeks greater support to fend off security risks in the region, including Iranian actions, and avenues to shore up bilateral trade in replacement of lost oil revenues, the UK is reaching out to old friends in a bid to strengthen non-mainland European relationships.
“We will make it a priority, when the UK leaves the European Union, to build the closest possible commercial and economic relationship,” a joint UK-GCC statement on December 7 said.
The commitment contrasts that of another GCC long-term Western ally, the US, which under Barack Obama has shown a retreating presence in the Middle East, while president-elect Donald Trump’s anti-Muslim comments and promise to pull out of Syria have left the future relationship uncertain.
The visit last week of British Prime Minister Theresa May, who became the first woman to address the GCC Summit, left no doubt that the Gulf would play an important role in Britain post-Brexit.
There were three key themes: security; Iran; and trade.
A commitment of $3.8bn for defence spending in the GCC, while building a new permanent military base in Bahrain and sharing expertise to improve airport security screening systems, is greater than any other country’s investment into the region.
Coupled with May’s promise that Britain would help to counter “Iran’s destabilising activities” in the Middle East (while continuing to support the 2015 nuclear deal), the UK rubber stamped its commitment to the GCC, even as it antagonised human rights activists.
During her speech to the GCC leaders, May urged them to follow through with social and economic reforms, such as those outlined in Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 document.
Ironically, she also told them to create “economies that work for everyone”. May would perhaps not be in the position she is today if her predecessors had done just that.
A week earlier, George Osborne, who she allegedly fired as chancellor, told this magazine that one of the pivotal reasons Britain had voted to leave the European Union was economic disenchantment among the broader population (read the full interview on page 26).
He would not admit that his comments drew parallels between the current rise in nationalist populism and the revolts across the Arab world in 2010, but he did say that leaders everywhere were “facing similar challenges” — namely, how to make citizens feel economically and socially empowered.
He agreed with May that the importance of the British-Gulf bond was only greater post the Brexit vote.
There was little detail during May’s visit on how bilateral trade would develop, although Downing Street sources told The Guardian that May’s private meeting with UAE Vice President and Prime Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum on December 6 focused on trade and investment.
The UK has often shown the value it places on its relationship with the UAE, with multiple leaders and Cabinet ministers travelling to the Gulf state shortly after taking office.
May arrived less than six months after moving into Downing Street, former prime minister David Cameron made his first official visit to the UAE in 2010 (which resulted in the establishment of the bilateral UAE-UK Taskforce) and Liam Fox made early speeches both as secretary of state for international trade and secretary of state for defence during trips to the Gulf.
Such visits are likely to only increase as the GCC finds itself in a deeper bond with one of its oldest and closest friends.