21 January 2021

Qatar’s victory over the Middle East blockade is a boon for Brexit Britain

By Damien Phillips

By refusing to bend to any of the often ridiculous demands of its regional rivals and toughing it out against a deeply cynical blockade, Qatar has won a stunning victory. This former British protectorate, the richest per capita country on earth, is now free to become an ever-stronger partner with a similarly liberated Brexit Britain.

The announcement that Saudi Arabia and its Arab allies have signed a ‘unity and stability’ declaration with Qatar, ending the blockade that has been enforced against it since 2017, is a welcome move both for the region and for world trade. The blockade by land, sea and air was untenable from the start. Ostensibly launched to punish Qatar’s supposed support for terrorism in the region, three years on no evidence has ever been produced to back up such claims.

The Saudi-led coalition arraigned against Qatar – which also included the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt – published a list of 13 demands in exchange for lifting the blockade, which were brazenly intended to undermine and effectively subjugate the tiny Gulf nation under the boot of an ever-more aggressive Saudi Arabia. They included dismantling the Al Jazeera news network (one of the few independent outlets in the Arab world), and aligning itself with the other Gulf and Arab countries “militarily, politically, socially and economically”, effectively ceding its sovereignty completely to a Saudi vision of the region.

The fact that the blockade has been lifted without Qatar fulfilling any of these demands is a tacit admission that they were merely a ransom note intended to force a fiercely independent nation into line with other Gulf monarchies who are resistant to meaningful change. The old guard of recalcitrant Gulf states are fearful of the pro-democracy and pro-freedom reforms that Qatar has steadily been pursuing for several decades now.

The news that Qatar has not buckled to such reactionary pressure will have been warmly received in Whitehall. A former British protectorate that achieved independence from the UK in 1971, Qatar has emerged as a Singapore-style economic powerhouse that has enormous affection for Britain and has retained strong ties with its former colonial masters. It is a growing trading partner with the UK and an increasingly significant investor here.

Bilateral trade between the UK and Qatar leapt by 21% in 2019, rising to £6.7bn, supporting over 5,000 UK businesses and Qatar has established itself as a hub for UK companies doing business in the MENA region (the Middle East and North Africa). The UK is the single largest destination for Qatari investment in Europe and it is one of the UK’s largest investors, with its stake in the UK economy worth more than £40 billion in 2020. It is currently backing Sainsbury’s, Barclays, the HSBC Tower, the Shard Skyscraper, the Olympic Village, Harrods, the Savoy Hotel, Canary Wharf, British Airways and it is amongst the largest shareholders in the London Stock Exchange. 

This was all achieved within the confines of sclerotic EU protectionism and stifling regulations limiting our ability to forge free trade and investment agreements. With the UK now unshackled, the urgency of the Covid-induced double dip recession lighting a fire under Britain’s free trade agenda, and Qatar newly released from its economic encirclement, it is the perfect opportunity to enhance our commercial cooperation.

That pro-British Qatar remains free also has wider regional implications that will prove to be a massive benefit to UK Plc. Qatar’s economic reforms are clearly working. It is now the richest nation on earth by far, with a Gross National Income per capita that is $20,000 higher than any other country, and one of the lowest unemployment rates in the world at 0.08% in 2020.

That success has been noticed by other Gulf states and will naturally invite emulation. That such a feat has been achieved hand-in-hand with peaceful and orderly social and political transformation is creating both a subtle pressure in the region for other states to follow suit and great encouragement to those Gulf monarchies who are keen to implement positive changes but are fearful of a conservative backlash.

Qatar’s creation of a gradual, sustainable shift towards thriving free markets and democratic government in the Gulf will in time lead to yet more regional economic success stories open to win-win partnerships with a dynamic post-Brexit UK. According to Her Majesty’s Trade Commissioner, Simon Penney, “bilateral trade between the UK and the Gulf grew by 90% in the last 10 years. And outside the EU, the Gulf is the UK’s seventh largest export market, second only to the US”. In 2019, bilateral UK-Gulf trade was worth $60.1 billion, more than India and Canada combined, and once more Gulf states start following Qatar’s lead this could skyrocket. 

Qatar’s victory over the Middle East blockade is therefore a boon for Brexit Britain, a positive step for the region, and an important building block for the urgently needed recovery in world trade once the pandemic subsides.

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Damien Phillips is an international affairs specialist and the Director of Proactive Public Affairs.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.