An Arms Dealer’s Brexit

In increasingly tenuous times, with a fragile new administration in Parliament and a Prime Minister seemingly hanging on by a thread, the Brexit negotiations have begun in Brussels. Up until the election, the PM had refused to blush, confidently asserting that ‘no deal, is better than a bad deal’, and that a ‘hard-Brexit’ was on the cards.

In this context, it is instructive to look more closely at the recent development of Britain’s relationship with the UAE and the Gulf more generally. This will help us ascertain the meaning behind a Conservative hard Brexit, and what this scenario implies, not only for the British economy, but for human rights and global stability more generally.

Brexit, especially a ‘hard Brexit’, necessitates Britain to look beyond European frontiers and to begin a process of reconstituting and configuring a broader, more open-ended relationship with the rest of the world. There are a range of opinions on this subject. Some claim that leaving the single market opens up opportunities to reinvigorate a British export economy focused on diversification of industry, in which Britain could lead the way in terms of green energies and high tech industries.

If this was the vision of the Conservative Party, Theresa May does not seem to have received the memo. In the face of a potentially glaring trade deficit, the first place she looked to plug the gap was the Arabian Peninsula with Gulf States such as Qatar, Oman, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, who assured her that they were prepared with ‘signature ready’ deals on the table. May barely even acquiesced to these offers as she visited Saudi Arabia in April of this year, where although vague references were made regarding the importance of ‘British values’, human rights concerns did not deter her from pushing ahead with a £30bn post-Brexit deal with Gulf states. With defence and security exports forming a key component in the UK’s trading relationship with Gulf states, it looks as though the heavily subsidised UK arms sector is going to receive a huge boost in the post-Brexit UK economy.

Shortly following the Prime Minister’s visit to the Gulf, a government-led delegation of UK investors and developers headed by the chairman of the government’s Home and Communities Agency, Sir Edward Lister, travelled to Dubai. In 2015, the UAE-UK Business Council announced an ambitious target to double bilateral trade to up to £25bn. With Brexit on the horizon and the current administration looking to the Gulf to plug the gap, reaching this target takes on added importance.

Though Theresa May may feel compelled to pay scant lip service to human rights when bolstering trade deals with Saudi Arabia, PR concerns surrounding similar deals with the UAE are somewhat less cautious. So much so that the UK boasts of its ‘special relationship’ with a nation whose regime routinely detains those within its borders on freedom of expression charges, shuts down spaces of critical debate and tortures its political prisoners. According to the Emirates Media and Studies Centre, in 2016 alone, around 300 people were detained for expressing opinions on social media that ran contrary to that of the authorities.

In one month alone of this year, the UAE authorities arbitrarily detained the prominent human rights defender and winner of the prestigious Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders, Ahmed Mansoor, and sentenced the prominent Emirati economist, Dr. Nasser Bin Ghaith, and journalist Tayseer al-Najjar to ten and three years respectively for comments made on social media platforms that the authorities deemed ‘damaged the reputation of the state’. Amidst the ongoing diplomatic crisis, the UAE Attorney-General, Dr Hamad Saif Al Shamsi issued a statement in which he declared anyone voicing sympathy for Qatar in the UAE could face up to 15 years in jail and fined up to £105,000.

However, in spite of mounting international condemnation from the likes of Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the International Commission of Jurists regarding human rights violations in the UAE, the British state continues to develop close relationships with the Emirati regime. With Brexit on the horizon and the British state looking to strengthen ties further afield, 2017 has been marked as the UK UAE year of culture. With the Prince of Wales as patron and the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan a key partner, the British council are collaborating with Emirati and British officials to create “a unique cultural programme that will strengthen existing relationships and broker new ones between our people, institutions and businesses”.

Britain also constitutes a key destination for the Emirati regime to project a positive image of itself on the global stage. By laundering its image through key UK cultural institutions such as football (the state owned ‘Emirates Airlines’ currently has a three year deal with the Football Association to sponsor the FA Cup), the regime is able to divert attention away from human rights abuses.

With the UAE constituting one of the UK’s largest export markets for arms and weaponry and with that sector earmarked for a big boost post-Brexit, the British government has become a willing partner in the Emirati regime’s projection of soft power, playing the role of a slick PR machine for UK arms dealers and manufacturers. It is simply not in their financial interests to expose the uglier side to life in the Emirates and of course, the more a state relies on its arms sector to form a key component of GDP growth, the more subordinated it becomes to this PR role where a myriad of human rights abuses are seemingly airbrushed from the pages of history. When questioned on the ethics of selling arms to Saudi Arabia in a TV election debate, the Home Secretary Amber Rudd responded by stating that to cease would quite simply be “bad for British industry”.

A report published by War on Want last year found that UK based companies, along with the British state, were deeply implicated in state repression in the UAE, and play a critical role in ensuring the stability of the Emirati regime. Among other things, the report highlighted the involvement of the UK College of Policing in training security forces on techniques specifically dealing with public disorder and dissent. In 2014, UK companies exported £6.1m worth of equipment dealing explicitly with internal unrest and were responsible for exporting technologies used specifically for monitoring and surveillance practices. One of these companies is QinetiQ who specialise in cyber security, and according to their website, provide ‘comprehensive 24/7 monitoring and alerting equipment’.

In October 2015, the UK government spent £12,000 encouraging British companies to attend the Emirates Security Exhibition and Conference in Dubai, an event sponsored by the Dubai police force. A shopping list was issued by Emirati officials which included ‘audio recording devices’, ‘communication monitoring’, ‘covert security and surveillance technologies’, and ‘public order equipment’. Additionally, only last week a BBC investigation found that UK based company BAE systems had been selling cyber and surveillance technologies to regimes across the Gulf region that were instrumental in quelling the last remnants of the Arab Spring.

So much for ‘British values’. With bilateral trade set to increase in the coming period, state repression in the UAE and across the region is only set to get worse. It is illustrative not only of a deeply cynical vision of Brexit, but exposes the short-sightedness an administration bereft of ideas when trying to grapple with one of the most important questions of our time. On leaving the European Union, Britain is take on an increasingly prominent role in propping up reactionary regimes and adding yet more fuel to the fire of one of the most volatile regions on the planet, driven by the need to plug a glaring trade deficit through the sale of arms.

And what does increasing bilateral trade with the UAE entail for the domestic UK economy? One of the key issues for people in the general election revolved around the issue of housing. With many people, especially the young struggling with exorbitant rents, and unable to buy their first home, the housing question has become a central issue.

A key purpose of the recent visit to the UAE was also to frame the post-Brexit UK economy as an attractive environment for Emirati capital investment. Sir Edward Lister, Chairman of the UK Homes and Communities Agency, hinted as to the nature of these future investments when addressing the UAE-UK Business Council earlier this year. He assured potential Emirati investors that “in spite of Brexit, the underlying property dynamics in the UK remains unchanged. The demand for all types of property is enormous”. Conceding that the government is failing to meet its target in housing construction, Lister beckoned Emirati investors to fill the gap.

In the UK, especially in London, since the financial crisis in 2008, spiralling price inflation has meant that housing has become a highly profitable investment for asset speculators. This has created a vicious cycle, whereby increased speculative activity on property inflates prices further, which in turn spurns yet more speculative activity, and so on, so much so that ordinary people, especially the young, are priced out of the market and forced to pay increasingly astronomical rents, sometimes up to 70% of the salary of lower earners. The rate of return on London property is such that it currently far exceeds that of industry, thus making investments in this area hugely attractive to the global rich, but increasingly unbearable to those concerned with the use, rather than the exchange value of housing. It is in this context, that for ordinary people who do not own their own homes, a booming property market means stagnating wages and spiralling rents.

Emirati, and Gulf capital more generally, has been instrumental in this process for quite some time. Revelations from the Panama papers leaked last year revealed that Abu Dhabi’s Emir, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed bin Sultan Al-Nahayan has an eye watering empire of over 250 properties in London worth billions. Emirati asset speculation and acquisition in the UK economy goes even further than this. Offshore Emirati holding companies under the control of the UAE ruling family owns among other things, 15% of Gatwick Airport, the Excel Centre in London, Manchester City Football Club, 10% of Thames Water, 42 Marriott Hotels, New Scotland Yard, Manchester Student Village. These investments have come after the crash in 2008, where UK real estate has been widely judged by the global rich as a sound investment in politically and economically uncertain times. A similar story can be ascertained when sketching the nature of wider Gulf investments, speculative asset purchase functions as safe deposits for the reservoirs of oil and gas wealth.

From the perspective of ordinary working people, the obvious problem with this form of foreign direct investment in the UK is that it actually does very little to productively grow the British economy; it does not create many, if any, high skilled jobs, and deters investment into other more labour intensive industries thereby keeping wages low, whilst at the same time substantially increasing the cost of living for ordinary people in the form of inflated housing prices and rents.

It merely papers over the cracks of the currently stagnant UK economy, and fails to address its deep structural problems in terms of stagnant GDP growth, low productivity and falling real wages.

And it is this vision of Brexit that holds sway in the halls of Westminster, where far from a radical break with the status quo, the existing problems in the UK economy, rather than being addressed, will be exacerbated even further. And rather than attracting investment in people, innovation, and skills, the property market remains centre stage, and with that, housing and other state assets veer further and further away from from servicing ordinary people. Furthermore, it is a vision of Brexit that entrenches the suffering of those in the United Arab Emirates currently living under the weight of oppression of the Emirati regime, and across the Gulf more generally. It is a vision that denies Emiratis’ freedom of speech, ensures the suppression of dissidents and denies peace more broadly to ordinary people across the Middle East.

It is in this context that both ordinary people in the UAE and UK should come together in the face of Brexit, to demand that the British government prioritises peace and social justice abroad, as well as jobs and stability at home. The people in the UK and the UAE deserve so much better than what is currently being pursued by their respective governments.

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