LONDON (MEMO) – Talks to boost trade by approximately $2 billion a year between members of the six Persian Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states and the UK were underway on Wednesday in Riyadh but little progress is expected on the major issue of human rights.
UK Trade Secretary Anne-Marie Trevelyan is in the Saudi capital where she will launch free trade negotiations with GCC states, made up of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
The GCC trading block is the UK’s seventh largest export market, representing some $41 billion in annual bilateral trade. Demand for goods and services in the region is expected to grow by 35 percent to $981 billion by 2035, according to the UK.
A free trade deal is also expected to open the door to increased investment from the Persian Gulf, supporting and creating jobs across the country.
However, negotiations will skirt around the issue of human rights. With the ongoing Saudi-led war in Yemen, the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and the arrest and detention of political opponents, Riyadh’s record on human rights is a major source of concern, as is the UAE’s crackdown on dissidents, and the treatment of foreign workers across the GCC.
Trevelyan appeared to sidestep concerns over human rights saying that expressing any UK “anxieties” over the issue would remain the responsibility of the Foreign Office. But enhanced trade links would allow the UK to engage more effectively on rights issues, she added.
Paul Nowak, deputy general secretary of the Trades Union Congress (TUC), said the government should not “entertain” a deal without addressing reform. “The Persian Gulf states’ appalling record on human rights and workers’ rights is no secret, and yet the government is rushing into trade talks, no questions asked,” he is reported saying.