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Brexit as seen from a Saudi perspective

As I write this, the UK is still a member state of the European Union. Being 31st  January today, it is likely that you will read this post-Brexit. Maybe surprisingly, maybe not, the move towards Brexit has been followed closely by people in the Middle East. Most of this has been from the perspective of international relations and wondering how the UK’s role might change in the new order. Will we align ourselves with the remnant EU, the USA, China, Norway/Switzerland, some other country or just go wherever we like from policy to policy?  More locally, will we retain strong, even favoured, ties with KSA? Or will we start to see things from the viewpoint of other ME nations now that we have to generate more international trade? There are many risks out there to which we will have reduced shelter, so I do hope we tread wisely. That’s my hope. So what does the Saudi press have to say on the matter? Here are some comments seen in recent days in the papers:

(Arab News, 29 January) With Britain set to exit the European Union (at 2300 UTC) on January 31, Arab media are speculating on potential repercussions on Arab states in the Middle East region. Some analysts say that trade between Britain's traditional partners in the Gulf and Egypt is likely to increase, while investment in Britain is also expected to grow.

Emirati businessman and hotel magnate Khalaf al-Habtour has been telling Arab and Western media that he's expecting investments in Britain to increase after Brexit takes effect, providing he does not stand to lose money on them.

Saudi English-language newspaper Arab News wrote in 2018 that "institutional and private investors in the Gulf region would feast on comparatively low cost opportunities [in Britain]," assuming that Britain's currency depreciated and British companies and properties became a bargain.

Khattar Abou Diab, who teaches political science at the University of Paris, tells VOA that he expects Brexit will give a reason to both Britain and Arab Gulf states to tighten their strategic ties. He says that the Arab Gulf states — which have enormous investments in Britain — will probably try to use those investments to their advantage in stressing to London their strategic and economic importance vis-a-vis Britain.

Washington-based Gulf analyst Theodore Karasik goes a step further, telling VOA he thinks that some Arab and Gulf states will use their investments to get Britain to re-evaluate some of its strategic positions, now that they weigh more heavily on the country's economic well-being. "Brexit is causing London to reassess its strategic interests and you see those occurring now with Oman and Egypt and then you are also seeing that there are investment-flow changes occurring and this will reset these relations. But the politics involved is going to be a driver in several hot-button issues, including Iran, Yemen, the Levant and Libya," he said.

Qatar's leading newspaper, The Peninsula, reported in September that Doha has about $50 billion in investments in Britain. Qatar's investment authority (the QIA) had promised to invest close to $6 billion in Britain due to Brexit back in 2017.

Doha's Gulf and Arab adversaries in Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt — following the imposition of economic sanctions by those countries against Qatar in 2017 — "are causing a bit of a rethinking of British support for some of Qatar's activities in the region," according to Karasik. "Britain is a battleground, if you will, for competing interests on this question about what Doha is exactly up to in the region. So, this is also driving the conversation and also will feed into how post-Brexit Britain will deal with Doha and vice versa," he said.

Khattar Abou Diab stresses that Britain tends to have closer strategic ties with the U.S. than with its European partners and that Brexit will probably reinforce that tendency. He says that European countries, including France, Germany, Holland and Belgium have deployed special forces troops to the UAE, while Britain has instead deployed forces alongside the U.S. in Bahrain.

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi recently visited London — as the head of an African Union delegation — and met with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Egyptian media suggested that both countries are hoping to increase trade ties, especially given that Britain is the first and foremost foreign investor in the Egyptian economy.

Paul Sullivan is a professor at the U.S. National Defense University in Washington. He tells VOA that Britain, "will be looking for new trading partners to substitute for declining trade with the EU," and that "Egypt and other large population states in the region may benefit from this." Sullivan also says he expects that "Brexit will have negative implications on the British economy," and that this will "likely reduce [its] oil and liquid natural gas imports. This," he argues, "could affect some Arab states via the energy markets."

I was at the British Embassy last week (I had the honour of addressing the haggis at the Riyadh Burns Supper) and had a brief chat with H.E. the ambassador, Simon Collis who coincidentally retired from the position in January after 5 years here representing Her Majesty. Simon reflected on his time in Riyadh “never a dull day” and “we live in interesting times” (I echo his sentiments). Being an ambassador he was predictably smooth about Brexit, instead preferring to look to his future as a retired servant of the Crown. I wish him all the best, he has been a very good supporter of the ex-pat community groups who have been able to have a normal-ish existence when on embassy soil.

There isn’t an EU Embassy in Riyadh, or an EU consulate in Jeddah, Khobar or anywhere else in KSA. So, I guess we will carry on as before and the British, Irish, French, Swedish, Dutch and German embassies (there are other EU remaining member states with a presence here) will happily co-exist in the common ex-pat bubble that is the Diplomatic Quarter in Riyadh. I certainly hope so. Out here, we are exposed to a far higher degree to citizens of the EU as we all work in our different ways to support the economy, infrastructure and industry of our host country. Brexit has been a leg-pulling exercise for our Irish, Polish, Spanish etc friends.

On the curling front, we have arranged a return trip to Prague for another 3-day training camp in March, this time with an advanced level for the people who were there last year, and more beginners going too. To assist people to get into Europe, I have written Letters of Participation to help our curlers holding Indian, South African and Eritrean passports obtain an EU Shengen zone visa for the event. But what about us? Elaine and I are going and it is not yet clear if we will be able to wave our legacy red EU passports at Karol at the kiosk and breeze straight in. Or will we have to join the same queue as our former empire friends? Or will our former European compatriots in the Czech Republic (a.k.a. Czechia) open a special “gate of shame” for Former EU Citizens which will bear a sign with 26 yellow stars (with an obvious gap in the 9th position) on a blue background and a large red X superimposed? No they wont, they are far too civilized to do that (but the French might though, I wouldn’t put is past them). In the spirit of fairness, I do have a lot of French friends (who also tease me about Brexit) but individually they are good souls really. It’s the collective French who are the mob-mentality risk.

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