TJM response to Gulf Cooperation Council Inquiry

Posted on January 10, 2022
Gcc Flag

TJM is very concerned about the UK Government's pursuit of a deal with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). There appear to be no substantial trade opportunities for the UK from such a deal and it may legitimise the extremely poor record of these countries in respect of human rights and climate change.

It is shocking that the Government should press ahead with a deal in the face of significant labour rights abuses, reported in particular in the context of preparations for the Qatar World Cup. There are over 2 million migrant workers in Qatar, many of whom have been working on World Cup preparations. The ITUC estimates that 1,200 workers died between 2010-2020 due to poor working conditions. Additionally, Bahrain and Oman are rated by ITUC as having ‘no guarantee of rights’ and amongst the worst countries in the world to be a worker. The kafala system gives employers disproportionate powers over workers and prevents them from leaving the country or changing jobs without the permission of their employers, and is a concern in a number of GCC countries.

All GCC countries have regressive laws and cultural norms around gender rights, and women are often treated as second class citizens. According to Amnesty International, women remain unequal in law in all six GCC countries. A number of GCC countries, including Kuwait, have refused to criminalize sexual violence and marital rape. Bahrain, the UAE, Kuwait and Oman have all failed to make their personal status and nationality laws gender-neutral. In Qatar, women under the age of 25 must obtain the permission of their male guardians to engage in activities such as signing contracts and leaving the country.

Many of the GCC countries have regressive laws which persecute members of the LGBT community, others have better legal protections but LGBT groups still face significant discrimination and disadvantage in practice. In Saudi Arabia and Qatar same-sex sexual activity is illegal, and in the UAE all sexual activity outside of marriage is illegal (and same-sex marriage is illegal). In a number of GCC countries transgender people are discriminated against, both in law and in practice. For example, in Kuwait a transgender woman was arrested several times in 2020 and charged under Article 198 of the Penal Code, which criminalizes “imitat[ing] the other sex in any way”.

GCC countries also have a poor record on climate change. A number of GCC countries are oil-producing and rely heavily on fossil fuels for their domestic energy needs as well as export and investment. Saudi Arabia was accused of obstructing and stalling progress on reaching a climate agreement at COP26. Greenpeace reported that Saudi negotiators moved to block the negotiations taking place over the creation of the so-called ‘cover decision’ for the final text, and delayed progress on adaptation. The UAE ranks as ‘highly insufficient’ according to Climate Action Tracker, as does Saudi Arabia (the other GCC countries are not rated by the tracker, but perform poorly on other measures).

It is highly unlikely that any of these issues can be adequately addressed in a human rights clause or labour chapter within the trade agreement, or that GCC countries would be willing to sign up to anything binding and enforceable on their domestic human rights law. The UK should seek other means of holding GCC countries to account for human rights and labour rights abuses. Signing a trade deal does not challenge these abuses, and indeed sends the message that the UK is uninterested or unconcerned about the rights of the vulnerable in these countries.

The full response can be found here.