How the Gulf’s petrodollars lubricate the British economy

Why it matters that money from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates weighs heavily and invisibly on British politics.

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

In the decades since the independence of Saudi Arabia in 1932 – followed by the post-colonial emergence of neighbours such as the United Arab Emirates and Qatar – Gulfpetrodollars have transformed a once sleepy region into a dynamic financial powerhouse. Last year, Abu Dhabi opened a branch of the Louvre; Qatar will host the Fifa World Cup in 2022. Even Saudi Arabia itself, the most secluded of all Gulf kingdoms, has embarked on an ambitious vision of the future with new roads, hospitals, transport links and cultural centres such as museums and cinemas.

Britons from all walks of life have moved to the region as a result. The United Arab Emirates is currently home to around 300,000 UK citizens. British oil workers, accountants, doctors, retailers and engineers occupy all aspects of government and private sectors in the Gulf. A visit to a Qatari supermarket is to witness globalisation occurring in real time with British products such as Mars bars and Walkers crisps competing for space with basmati rice from Pakistan and mangoes from India.

Naturally, Britain’s present-day relationship with the region is as old as empire. Throughout the Arabian peninsula, the UK has variously acted as military bully, corporate raider, power broker and vizier. In the 1880s, wary of French encroachment from north Africa, the British forced a number of Gulf countries to sign agreements barring them from establishing relations with any other Gulf state. For much of the first half of the 20th century, the Gulf acted as a “cordon sanitaire around India”, protecting British interests. During the Second World War, as Britain diverted food supplies away from its colonies to feed troops in Europe and elsewhere, hundreds of Gulf nationals died as a result.

Britain’s role in maintaining its relationship with the Arabian peninsula has been more transactional since 1945, managing imperial decline while aggressively seizing on business opportunities and cautioning movements such as Arab pan-nationalism and the Arab Spring. If Britain has a policy in the region, it isn’t the promotion of democracy or civil society reforms, but the right to maintain arms sales, secure large infrastructure contracts and attract Gulf investment to the UK.

It is often surprising how little British coverage of the Gulf examines just how the region’s petrodollars have subtly impacted the UK. British newspapers focus on tourists detained in jails in Dubai or human rights abuses involving domestic maids. But there is, of course, a more significant counter-effect to pursuing the causes of petrodollars. David Wearing’s deeply researched AngloArabia is an insightful examination of how money from the likes of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates weighs heavily and invisibly on British politics.

As Wearing demonstrates, the UK’s reliance on Gulf money began decades before investors from Abu Dhabi or Riyadh expressed a financial interest in football clubs such as Manchester City or newspapers such as the Independent. By 1975, Saudi Arabia already held the equivalent in today’s prices of around £20bn worth of investment in the British economy. Much of this financing occurs discretely but makes an indelible mark on related sectors such as retail and tourism. In London’s case, this has most profoundly affected the housing market. Wearing, a teaching fellow in international relations at Royal Holloway, University of London, presents a complex study of how Gulf countries have used their sovereign wealth funds – state-owned investment funds – to win influence across all aspects of British life. According to the Sovereign Wealth Fund Institute, an organisation that monitors investments, 14 out of 78 sovereign wealth funds are managed by the Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC, comprised of Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman and Bahrain). Their combined assets account for around 40 per cent of the value of all sovereign wealth funds.

These funds have allowed the oil-producing bloc to invest heavily in the UK, some £35bn in the case of Qatar. Elsewhere, Abu Dhabi owns 4.9 per cent of Citigroup and Kuwait owns 5.7 per cent of Merrill Lynch. Many of these financial investments are also boosted by sizeable business portfolios that include buildings such as the Shard and the Harrods department store. Abu Dhabi owns ExCel London; Dubai Holdings owns Travelodge. Students at the London School of Economics attend talks in the Sheikh Zayed Theatre. It is likely that anyone visiting or living in London in 2018 interacts with the Gulf on a daily basis. London’s skyline has also undergone the kind of Arabesque rejuvenation witnessed in Abu Dhabi and Dubai a decade ago.

While British officials usually opt for a diplomatic silence when explaining the UK’s trade deals with Gulf countries, advisers occasionally betray the inner thinking of the relationship. Simon Mayall, a former Middle East adviser to the Ministry of Defence, may have spoken a little impolitically when he told a Commons select committee in 2016, “We are a values-based society. They are a values-based society. It is a different set of values, but they are increasingly globalised.”

Although Wearing’s book reveals important research on the macro nature of Gulf finances in Britain, he has little space to explore how British politicians – and sections of the media – have failed to explain how Emirati or Qatari financing has also proven beneficial to some aspects of UK life at a time of austerity. Globalisation can be both predatory and constructive. Substantial amounts of Gulf money have helped create new businesses and aided in the rehabilitation of city centres such as Manchester and Birmingham. The UK is also seen as one of the global leaders in the Islamic finance economy and halal tourism.

On the matter of arms sales, however, “British values” are often the first victims of realpolitik. In recent years, the British government has worked closely with the defence industry to aid Saudi Arabia in the prosecution of its war in Yemen, and successive Conservative administrations have largely remained silent on Saudi abuses there. Britain’s military reach can be seen all round the region: UK arms manufacturers are regular exhibitors at defence shows in Abu Dhabi; Gulf armies rely on American, French and British advisers to train troops and provide strategic advice. In the last decade, the Middle East and North African region – MENA – has accounted for over 50 per cent of all UK defence sales by value.

As Wearing’s excellent analysis acknowledges, two immediate problems threaten the UK’s relationship with the Gulf. China is set to become the world’s largest oil and gas importer by 2020, and India will become the second largest by 2035. The GCC is best placed to supply both countries: Qatar already provides a third of all the gas imported by China. These dynamics will see a recalibration in the Gulf-UK relationship to one less rooted in shared history and more transactional on defence and investment.

More substantially, a badly executed Brexit threatens to make the UK less desirable for Gulf countries seeking to diversify oil income. As Theresa May’s government prepares for an unpredictable aftershock following March 2019, this country’s assets could look less attractive to Gulf leaders who have long coveted British political and financial stability. Since the 2016 referendum, British ambassadors around the Gulf have given speeches emphasising the merits of “Global Britain”. The accuracy of that slogan – and the UK’s relationship with the monarchies of the Middle East – has yet to face its most severe stress test. 

AngloArabia: Why Gulf Wealth Matters to Britain
David Wearing
Polity, 240pp, £15.99

This article first appeared in the 14 September 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The return of fascism