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Arms deals, speculation and repression: A very British Brexit Open in fullscreen

Joe Odell

Arms deals, speculation and repression: A very British Brexit

The UK has boasted of its 'special relationship' with the UAE [AFP]

Date of publication: 4 July, 2017

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Comment: With trade between the UAE and the UK set to increase post-Brexit, state repression in the UAE is only set to get worse, writes Joe Odell.

In increasingly tenuous times, with a fragile new administration in parliament and a prime minister seemingly hanging 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 requires Britain to look beyond European frontiers and 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 economy, 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 to 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.

The heavily subsidised UK arms sector is going to receive a huge boost in the post-Brexit UK economy

Shortly after 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 surrounding similar deals with the UAE displays even less caution.

  Read more: UAE prisoner Imran al-Radwan 'on 40th day' of hunger strike

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 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".

The British government has become a willing partner in the Emirati regime's projection of soft power

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.

[Click to enlarge]

When questioned on the ethics of selling arms to Saudi Arabia in a TV election debate, Home Secretary Amber Rudd responded that to cease would quite simply be "bad for British industry". What follows from this reasoning, is that maintaining 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.

British staff from the UK college of Policing had been training Emirati security forces on techniques explicitly dealing with public disorder and internal dissent

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 £18 million 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".

  Read more: British arms dealer 'sold spy technology that enabled Arab Spring crackdowns'

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

So 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 remain 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. 

Rather than attracting investment in people, innovation, and skills, the property market remains centre stage

In the UK, and 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 that sees increased speculative activity on property inflate prices further, which in turn spurns yet more speculative activity. As a result, ordinary people - especially the young - are priced out of the market and forced to pay increasingly astronomical rents, sometimes up to 70 percent 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 inaccessible to those concerned with the use, rather than the exchange value of housing.

Emirati, and Gulf capital more generally, has been instrumental in this process for quite some time.

Leaks from the Panama papers last year revealed that Abu Dhabi's Emir, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed  Al-Nahayan has an eye watering empire of over 250 properties in London worth billions.

This 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

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 percent of Gatwick Airport, the Excel Centre in London, Manchester City Football Club, 10 percent of Thames Water, 42 Marriott Hotels, New Scotland Yard and 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 creates few, if any, high skilled jobs, and deters investment into other more labour intensive industries thereby keeping wages low, while 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 lifeless UK economy, and fails to address its deep structural problems in terms of stagnant GDP growth, low productivity and falling real wages.

Though 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.

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 servicing ordinary people.

Finally, this 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 in grappling with one of the most important questions of our time. Ordinary people in the UK and the UAE deserve so much better than the policies being pursued by their respective governments.




Joe Odell is Press Officer at the International Campaign for Freedom in the UAE. He has an MA in Middle Eastern Politics and regularly writes and speaks on the Middle East, especially the Gulf region.

Follow him on Twitter: @JoeOdell3

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff. 

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