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Johnson’s exit will not impede deepening UK-Gulf relations

New political leadership will make little difference upon the trade deal with both markets set to benefit

Creative Commons
Boris Johnson with UAE president Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan

The UK government is reeling from a tumultuous and explosive week which has rocked the political landscape. 

Almost three years since taking office, the UK prime minister Boris Johnson has faced no choice but to resign.

The Conservative Party’s confidence in Johnson evaporated with ministers deserting in unprecedented droves after a series of allegations of dishonesty accumulated throughout his leadership. 

Trust in the government was already at an all-time low on the back of “partygate” and a variety of other moments throughout his illustrious premiership, including the departure of Dominic Cummings, who has made life difficult for the PM since his exit.

The PM’s position quickly became untenable when yet another political scandal consumed No 10. The appointment of Chris Pincher MP to deputy chief whip was made despite complaints against him.

There was no bluffing out of this one as the PM finally ran out of road.

I recall the day Johnson walked in the door back in July 2019. The atmosphere was electric.

The PM and his team were rightly energised and bullish on the back of the huge mandate they had won in the 2019 election and confident they would be able to deliver Brexit and whatever else they set out to do. 

The GCC-UK trade talks will continue to be driven forward by the British civil service

On the steps of Downing Street, the PM made clear his great ambitions were to build new hospitals, fix social care, level up the country through education and infrastructure, and get Brexit done.

Yet he was faced with an unprecedented crisis with the coronavirus pandemic steering his time in office in an unexpected direction.

Before he had even been in the hot seat six months, Covid had emerged and before long he ended up in intensive care.

When the pandemic response took over, from lockdowns to the successful vaccination programme, other policies had to be put on hold while the government managed its way through the most challenging time in decades.

Despite the obstacles, the government has delivered important policies from the Levelling Up white paper to social care reform.

No doubt the prime minister will feel short-changed that he hasn’t achieved everything he set out to do when he walked through the door.

His ambition would have been to plough on despite the controversies, but loyalty to the PM has ultimately waned beyond his survival.

Globally everyone now has eyes on the unfolding events in Westminster. The UK has a long-established relationship with the Middle East, and GCC countries will be wondering what a new leader will mean for the strong allies. 

The GCC is already an important trading partner and key ally, with almost £22 billion ($26.41 billion) of UK exports and bilateral trade worth over £30 billion in 2020.

When Johnson became PM, the Gulf would have welcomed the new opportunities and the potential for increased trade prosperity in a post-Brexit world. 

Earlier in the year, Johnson visited Saudi Arabia and the UAE to strengthen the strong economic partnership between the countries, boost trade and investment, and to discuss increased security and defence cooperation and energy agreements.

The UK and Gulf will be working closely together ahead of the UAE hosting COP28 next year, with green technology and energy innovation a source of partnership as both work towards reaching net-zero emissions by 2050.

A billion-dollar investment was made by Saudi Arabia’s Alfanar Group into the Lighthouse Green Fuels Project in Teeside, as the company aims to produce sustainable aviation fuel from waste in Britain.

We can expect British businesses to play a key role in delivering on the ambitions in the Gulf – including Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030.

The GCC-UK trade talks are also underway to boost trade and investment between the two. It is doubtful the demise of Johnson will impact on these trade discussions.

The advanced negotiations would continue as planned and will continue to be led and driven forward by the British civil service, including by the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office and the Department for International Trade. 

The change of political leadership will make little difference upon the trade deal, with both markets set to benefit. 

There is no clear direction for now in terms of who will be the new leader. The PM has stated he intends to remain caretaker until the autumn, after which he will be replaced by a new PM.

While he has appointed his new cabinet, the heftiest challenge facing the government is being able to function as normal given the level of ministerial vacancies. 

It now falls to the 1922 Committee of backbenchers to decide the timetable for electing a new Conservative Party leader, with the contest wide open and a whole host of names being bandied around from Liz Truss to Ben Wallace and Penny Mordaunt. 

Whoever takes office will ultimately be seeking to stabilise the situation at home and then go on to seek new opportunities. 

A new leader will be building and maintaining the long-standing partnerships around the globe, but a priority will be for the UK and Gulf to grow investment and trade yet further, and build on security and energy cooperation during uncertain times.

Natasha Moor is senior advisor at Manara Global, a UAE based strategic communications agency. Previously, she was chief press officer in the UK Prime Minister’s Office serving Boris Johnson and Theresa May