UK-Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) trade deal

UK-Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) trade deal

The UK are in ongoing trade negotiations with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) - a trading bloc of six countries including Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Any diplomatic discussions between the UK and the GCC have avoided talks on human rights, labour rights, women's and climate change, which has been widely condemned by nongovernmental organisations (NGO's) and trade unions.

What is TJM calling for?

We do not believe that a trade deal between the UK and the GCC is desirable or will help the UK achieve its economic and sustainability objectives.

It is essential that climate change is put at the heart of future FTAs that the UK makes, to ensure the UK’s trade policy does not conflict with the UK’s climate ambitions. It is unclear how this can be realistically achieved in the context of the fossil fuel-based economic models followed by all GCC countries, in addition to high rates of energy consumption and low climate ambition. If the UK wishes to be a global leader on climate change, it must find fellow ambitious trading partners, rather than strike deals with some of the worst offenders.

The human rights and labour rights concerns are not random, one-off instances, but deeply embedded in the political and economic systems of many GCC countries. We are not optimistic that 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.

However, these binding and enforceable provisions should nonetheless be pursued, and the UK should also 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 may send the message that the UK is uninterested or unconcerned about the rights of the vulnerable in these countries.

Trade negotiations: status update

The UK and the six countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) have formally launched talks in 2022 and are still ongoing. The third round of official talks between the UK and the six-nation GCC trading bloc started in the Saudi capital Riyadh on 13 March 2023. A potential trade deal is not expected any time soon.

"The shocking human rights situation in Qatar and across the region makes it untenable for trade talks to continue."

Ruth Bergan, Director of the Trade Justice Movement in the lead up to the 2022 FIFA World Cup
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Concerns about human rights

The GCC includes some of the most oppressive and politically repressive regimes in the world. Indeed, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain are priority human rights countries for the FCDO. Amnesty International’s 2020 country profiles raise a large number of concerns about human right violations across GCC member states, including: the death penalty, unfair trials, confessions extracted by torture, persecution and discrimination against ethnic minorities and religious groups, suppression of freedom of expression and corporal judicial punishment.

The GCC’s track record on human rights has been cited as a concern by many other organisations in relation to a FTA with the UK, including: the TUC, The Business and Human Rights Resource Centre, the NHS Confederation and the Law Society.

Concerns about LGBT rights

Many of the countries that make up the GCC have regressive laws which persecute members of the LGBT community, whilst others have better legal protections but LGBT groups still face significant discrimination and disadvantage in practice. Same sex marriage is criminalised in all 6 GCC member states whilst same-sex activity is illegal in all GCC countries except Bahrain. In a number of GCC countries transgender people are also discriminated against, both in law and in practice.

Concerns about women's rights

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. In all the GCC countries, there are restrictions on the ability of women to access abortion services, and in some countries a male guardian’s approval is required, and/or abortion is only permitted on health or therapeutic grounds. A number of GCC countries 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 addition, the GCC states have among the highest gender wage gaps in the world, according to the World Economic Forum’s 2021 rankings.

Concerns about labour rights

The International Trade Union Confederation’s 2021 Global Rights Index identified the Middle East and North Africa as the worst region in the world for working people. The five GCC states included in the Global Rights Index were ranked as either 4 (systematic violation of rights) or 5 (no guarantee of rights) on the index. The kafala sponsorship system, prevalent across the GCC, gives employers disproportionate powers over them and prevents them from leaving the country or changing jobs without the permission of their employers. Many issues for migrant workers employed under the kafala system in GCC member states have been identified, such as poor living conditions, contract violations and irregularities and limited access to healthcare. In addition, none of the GCC states have ratified all eight of the International Labour Organisation’s (ILO) core conventions that cover fundamental principles and rights at work and none have ratified the ILO’s Domestic Workers Convention.

Given the seriousness of the labour right abuses taking place across the GCC, signing a trade agreement would undermine the UK’s position as a strong advocate for workers’ rights.

Concerns about climate change

The UK claims to be a world-leader in the fight against climate change, and was the first major economy to set a carbon-zero target of 2050. Last year, the UK hosted the COP26 Climate Conference and the UK retains the presidency until the end of 2022.

In contrast, the GCC have historically been unengaged with international efforts to combat change. 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, as member states rely heavily on fossil fuels for their domestic energy needs as well as export and investment, and no GCC nation offers a viable model for climate adaptation or mitigation. Only three of the GCC member states have made any kind of net zero commitments, and none of these are binding. National Vision papers published by GCC governments demonstrate that methods for achieving reductions in emissions are predicated on ‘cleaner’ forms of gas, and advancements in sustainable technology, carbon capture and tree planting rather than a commitment to cut gross emissions.

Climate change should be at the heart of every trade deal the UK makes, but an agreement with the GCC will inevitably conflict with the UK’s climate ambitions.

Public view

There is widespread opposition to the UK pursuing a trade deal with the GCC: polling on behalf of DIT in the Spring of 2021 found that only a quarter (27%) of the British public support a trade deal with Saudi Arabia whilst a similar minority (30%) would support a deal with the UAE.

More broadly, the public think the human rights record of trading partners should be considered rather than ignored. In February 2022, Redfield & Wilton strategies polled 1,500 “eligible voters” on behalf of Politico. Survey respondents were asked whether they thought the UK should only make trade deals with countries that meet certain human rights standards. 61% agreed, whilst 9% disagreed.

Given the public view, it would seem sensible to assume an overarching trade strategy that has the support of the UK populace would include human rights considerations. It is especially disingenuous for the UK to be pursuing a trade deal with the GCC when the limited public engagement DIT has undertaken demonstrates that this trade deal has active opposition at a fundamental level.


Image: Prime Minister Boris Johnson visits the GULF Region (2022). Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. The Prime Minister Boris Johnson meets Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud, the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia at the Royal Court in Riyadh during a visit to the Gulf Region. Picture by Andrew Parsons / No 10 Downing Street (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)