The UK should be willing to walk away from trade negotiations with Gulf states rather than accept an agreement that fails to address human rights and environmental concerns, MPs have said.
A report from the Commons International Trade Committee on negotiations with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) raised significant concerns about human rights abuses in the region and urged the Government to use its leverage to improve conditions before signing an agreement.
Concerns included “the continued repression of women, the repression of the rights of LGBTQ+ individuals, and a crackdown on activists and the civic space”, while two members of the bloc – Saudi Arabia and Bahrain – were listed as Human Rights Priority Countries by the Foreign Office in 2021.
The committee said: “We urge the UK government to be openly prepared to end the negotiations rather than accept an unsatisfactory agreement.”
As well as binding commitments on human rights, the committee called for any free trade agreement with the GCC to include pledges on decarbonisation and for the Government to tighten modern slavery laws to prevent the UK becoming “complicit in rights abuses”.
The committee also noted that human rights concerns had prevented the EU from reaching a free trade agreement with the GCC, which includes Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
SNP MP and committee chairman Angus Brendan MacNeil said: “A trade deal with the GCC, like any major free trade agreement, of course represents a potential economic opportunity for the UK.
“But this particular deal is about something even more important. The approach we take here will be about how we see ourselves as a society, how we are seen around the world and whether we are willing to put our values on human rights and the environment on the negotiating table.
“We have heard promises in the past that more trade will not come at the expense of human rights. But the UK is negotiating a trade deal with a bloc including countries that the Government itself has assessed as having particularly concerning human rights issues.”
In its response to written questions from the committee, the Government said the UK was a “leading advocate for human rights” but free trade agreements “are not generally the most effective or targeted tool to advance human rights issues”.
The Government opened negotiations with the GCC in June 2022, saying a deal could boost the UK economy by up to £1.6 billion a year.
Trade between the UK and the GCC is already worth £33.1 billion, making it the UK’s seventh largest trading partner, and the bloc’s demand for international goods and services is expected to increase 35% in the next 13 years.
But while the International Trade Committee acknowledged a deal presented a “good opportunity” for UK businesses in food, green technology and financial services, it questioned whether the UK should be pursuing negotiations with the GCC at all.
It said: “Given the differing legal systems within the GCC and the bloc’s history as a trade actor, we believe that, in this instance, bilateral agreements would allow us to push individual states further to be more ambitious with, for example, human rights provisions, rather than settling for a lowest common shared standard.”
The committee also renewed its criticism of the Department for International Trade – now merged into the Department for Business and Trade – for “dodging parliamentary scrutiny” by failing to send a minister to give evidence and responding to written questions late.
Mr MacNeil said: “The Government needs to make plain what sort of trading nation we want to be.
“A trade strategy and transparent approach to scrutiny from a minister would have been helpful in this regard, but with no strategy forthcoming and the department’s refusal to send a minister to speak to our committee, it is difficult to assess whether we will be getting the right deal which will benefit the UK and its people.”
A spokesperson for the Department for Business and Trade said: “We are negotiating a modern, ambitious deal with the GCC, which could increase trade by 16% and add £1.6 billion a year to the UK economy.
“The UK is a leading advocate for human rights. We continue to show global leadership in encouraging all states to uphold their international obligations and hold those who abuse human rights to account, including through our independent global human rights sanctions regime.”