Theresa May is today in Bahrain to attend the the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) annual summit. She will sit down with the leaders of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emrates and discuss, among other things, a potential new trade deal with the region.
Saying anything concrete and specific in these discussions will be difficult, for exactly the same reasons I discussed in a recent post about Theresa May’s visit to India for trade discussions. Until potential trade partners know what the UK’s post-Brexit trade relationship is with the EU, it is difficult to negotiate. Most importantly, unless the UK leaves the Customs Union, the UK government won’t be doing a trade deal with the GCC because it will not be able to offer reductions in tariffs and all the other goodies that such countries want from the UK.
But putting these concerns aside, the trip to Bahrain raises questions about the ethics of the UK’s post-Brexit trade policy. Human rights groups have raised concerns that commercial interests are what is driving the trip, and that Theresa May will fail to speak out about human rights abuses, particularly in Bahrain. In a statement, the groups reported that “[s]ince June 2016, the Government of Bahrain has dissolved the largest political party in the country, stripped the citizenship of the country’s most senior Shia cleric, prosecuted human rights activists and prevented them from travel, and placed an entire community under constant police blockade.”
Theresa May said before she left for the Gulf that “There will be some people in the UK who say we shouldn’t seek stronger trade and security ties with these countries because of their record on human rights. But we don’t uphold our values and human rights by turning our back on this issue. We achieve far more by stepping up, engaging with these countries and working with them.”
Since 2012, the UK has been providing technical assistance to Bahrain to work towards the reform of the police and judiciary. But the human rights situation seems to have got worse and not better over that period. And we should be wary about signing a trade deal with countries like Bahrain while at the same time ‘engaging’ over human rights issues. There are serious dangers that commercial concerns will then be prioritized over human rights abuses. My own research into processes of dialogue in EU trade agreements on social and environmental issues within trade agreements shows that these dialogues are under-resourced and ineffective.
We are at a crucial point in the development of our post-Brexit trade policy. For leaders of countries in the GCC to take the UK seriously in trade negotiations, Theresa May would have to tell them that she plans to leave the Customs Union. It seems wrong that they might know this before the UK population does. It also seems deeply worrying that our trading relationships may be shifting fundamentally away from Europe and towards regions like the Gulf, without any discussion about the underlying values that trade policy should be based on.