x

Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 16 December 2018

Political rifts in divided Britain are only set to deepen

The UK will be working hard to consolidate old alliances in the Gulf

Anti-Brexit protester Steve Bray outside the Houses of Parliament in Westminster, London. Matt Dunham / AP
Anti-Brexit protester Steve Bray outside the Houses of Parliament in Westminster, London. Matt Dunham / AP

From the moment in June 2016, when it became clear that the British people had voted to end their nation’s 43-year partnership with the European Union by the most slender of margins, public discourse in the UK has been wracked by high drama, crisis and bitter division. Any hope that British Prime Minister Theresa May’s 585-page draft Brexit deal would enable the nation to settle its differences and move on now lies in tatters. Uniting her fractious cabinet was one thing; but after a tumultuous day in Parliament in which ministers fell like skittles, accompanied by votes of no-confidence, mutterings of her days being numbered and the pound plummeting in value, the political rifts are only set to deepen. In a worst-case scenario, with mounting pressure from Scotland to remain in the EU, the UK itself could fall apart.

On one level, at least, Britain’s eventual withdrawal from the EU should hold little to fear from the UK’s partners in the Gulf, as the list of exhibitors at this week’s Adipec oil and gas conference made clear. No fewer than 143 of the companies were British, reflecting a long and healthy trading relationship with the UAE and a commitment to a mutually prosperous future. Free of the EU, the UK will be working hard to develop fresh trading relationships, especially with old friends, and there are few more valued than the UAE. Outside Europe, the UAE is the UK’s fifth largest trading partner. Since the Brexit referendum, the two countries have been forging fresh alliances and business is flourishing. Last year alone, the value of trade between the UK and the UAE rose by 12 per cent to $22.4 billion.

But a smooth continuation of trade isn’t all that’s at stake. Britain joined the EU in January 1973, just 13 months after the federation of the emirates, and from its earliest days the UAE has had the convenience of negotiating with Europe as a common market, presenting a united front on everything from defence and foreign policy to air travel and migration. Today, dealing with Europe means dealing with 28 countries at a stroke. That is set to change – and worse may be in store. With the rise of populist political sentiment across Europe, many fear Brexit is the crack in the dam that will see the great European experiment burst asunder. For a glimpse of the potential consequences of such a fragmentation, look no further than the policy crisis precipitated by the US withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal, which has left Gulf states having to reconcile their objectives with those of two opposing western camps. Finally, whether or not the UK leaves the EU as planned on March 29 next year, a thought must be spared for the 100,000-plus Britons living and working in the UAE. It should not be forgotten that much of the Brexit campaign was fuelled by a groundswell of right-wing opposition to migrants. Cosmopolitan by nature and tolerant of other cultures, Britons living overseas face the prospect of returning to a country they might no longer recognise and, under current circumstances, perhaps no longer care for.

Follow The National's Opinion section on Twitter