Arms Deals, Speculation, and Repression, A Very British 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.
This 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. What might this look like, and what will the implications be for the domestic UK economy and human rights and global stability more generally?
A UK Arms Dealer's Brexit
The first place Theresa May looked to plug the trade deficit 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, signalling that 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.
As the British state looks 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”.
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. Campaigners have recently complained that the UAE launders 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), to divert attention away from human rights abuses.
However 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”. What follows from this reasoning, is that the maintenance of these regimes is in fact 'good for British industry', and from the perspective of the British state it becomes crucial to prop them up.
This is quite aptly illustrated in the UAE, where a hazy network of relations between British state actors and UK corporations, play a key role in ensuring the stability of the Emirati regime. A War on Want report found last year that in recent years, British staff from the UK college of Policing had been training Emirati security forces on techniques explicitly dealing with public disorder and internal dissent, and that in October 2015 the UK government spent £12,000 encouraging British companies to attend the Emirates Security Exhibition and Conference in Dubai. The event was sponsored by the Dubai police force who issued a shopping by Emirati officials which included 'communication monitoring software', 'covert security and surveillance technologies, and 'public order equipment'.
Between January 2015 and December 2016, the UAE spent over £18m on surveillance technology from UK companies such as QinetiQ who according to their website provide ”comprehensive 24/7 monitoring and surveillance technologies”. According to the Emirates Media and Studies Centre, in 2016 alone, around 300 people were detained for expressing opinions on social media that ran counter to those of the state. In March of this of this year, the prominent human rights activist, Ahmed Mansoor, Emirati academic Dr Nasser Bin Ghaith, and Journalist Tayseer al-Najjar were incarcerated by UAE authorities on charges of 'cybercrimes'. All of this underlines the immorality of Britain's role in the UAE. Without UK companies assistance in terms of acquiring these technologies the UAE would not be able to exercise this kind of control over its citizens. With bilateral trade set to increase in the coming period, state repression in the UAE is only set to get worse, so much for 'British values'.
An Emirati Speculator's Brexit
And what does increasing bilateral trade with the UAE entail for UK society more generally? Admittedly, boosting the UK arms industry will lead to job creation in that particular sector, but what does Emirati investment in the UK mean more broadly for the British economy?
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. After the financial crisis in 2008, Offshore Emirati holding companies under the control of the UAE ruling family bought up 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.
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.
Whilst not exhaustive, the development of the UK's relationship with the UAE provides us with a snapshot of the vision of Brexit that currently 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 an oppressive Emirati regime. 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.
More than anything, it heavily exposes the sort-sightedness of an administration bereft of ideas when trying to grapple with one of the most important questions of our time. Ordinary people in the UK and the UAE deserve so much better than what is currently being pursued by their respective governments.