x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

For British MPs, out of sight is out of mind

With a UK general election next month, the main political parties seem oblivious to the impact 100,000 British citizens in the UAE could have.

Here are some rough, back-of-the-envelope calculations: there are perhaps 100,000 British citizens living and working in the UAE. Most of them - let's cautiously say 75,000 - are adults above the minimum age to vote back in the UK. Those 75,000 votes could affect the outcome of dozens of marginal constituencies in the coming general election.

Most of those expatriates are likely to be regarded as natural Conservative voters - entrepreneurial types who dislike "big" government and taxation - yet they are also sufficiently of independent mind to count as possible converts to the Liberal Democrats (Lib Dems). With the emergence of Nick Clegg, the leader of the Lib Dems, as the most popular of the three prime ministerial candidates after last week's live TV debate, the battle between opposition Conservatives and Lib Dems may become the decisive contest of the election.

So those 75,000 UAE votes, as well as the thousands of others in Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, could have a decisive influence on the outcome of the British general election on May 6. If that is so, the three main parties have been very slow to recognise the importance of Gulf voters. Virtually the only direct reference to Gulf expats so far in the UK election campaign came in a recent interview with the Labour MP David Miliband, the British minister of foreign affairs, on a Dubai website.

Mr Miliband did not say very much in his interview. Asked about the prospect of a "global taxation" for British nationals anywhere in the world, along US taxation lines, he came out with a non-committal response along the lines that he had no "new commentary" to add to existing Labour taxation policy. He also muttered a few words about the other big issue for expatriates, the unpaid contractors' fees British companies are owed by UAE developers. His answer really meant: "I don't know anything about that, ask the Treasury."

Overall, it was a pretty meagre response to genuine requests by voters for information on which they might base their decision to vote. Perhaps the Labour government has given up trying to woo Gulf voters, thinking people who left the UK in the past decade were probably trying to get away from the Blair-Brown government anyway and were unlikely to be swayed. But neither of the other parties seems to be doing anything more concrete to appeal to Gulf voters.

Repeated requests by The National to the media offices of Labour, the Conservatives and Lib Dems in London over the past week have so far produced only the flimsiest of evidence they have given any regard to the concerns of their expatriate constituents in the Middle East. The Conservatives' response was friendly and chatty: "Oh no, we don't have any plans to introduce taxation for expatriates. We're not that kind of party, you know," said the spokesman with responsibility for international affairs.

But when asked about contractors' bills and other issues of interest to expats, he was vague. Requests for an interview with David Cameron, the Conservative leader, or William Hague, the foreign affairs spokesman, to discuss these issues in detail have so far produced no response. The Lib Dems were a little better but not entirely satisfactory. They could not put up an interviewee but were happy to send details of their policies on the region.

These were not really what was needed. There was general information on their plans to introduce new restrictions on non-domicile tax status for UK citizens. Interesting perhaps, but nothing really to do with a possible global tax. After that, there was some general thoughts from the Lib Dem's manifesto about the need for "tough, targeted sanctions" against Iran and waffle about "security through the EU".

The political parties have so far missed the chance to talk directly to a big chunk of voters whose views could have a major effect. Mark Beer, the chairman of the British Business Group (BBG) in Dubai and the Northern Emirates, believes the possibility of expatriate taxation is the biggest concern of voters in the UAE. "A Conservative MP who addressed the BBG earlier this year promised categorically that there were no plans to introduce expatriate taxation for British citizens," said Mr Beer. "Lord Mandelson [the British business secretary] could give no such pledge when he talked to us later in the year."

Mr Beer thinks British voters in the UAE will understandably make their decision on the basis of which party will look after the interests of them and their families. If British voters in the Gulf make their ballot-box decision on conventional grounds, their over-riding consideration will probably be the state of the British economy. The past week has done nothing to reassure anybody that the UK's livelihood is in safe hands under Labour, or that any outcome would dramatically improve prospects.

Stock markets and sterling have suffered from the growing possibility of a hung parliament, which financial experts fear would slow the urgent action needed by a new government to tackle public finances. There is little in the British economic situation to attract Gulf expatriates back to the country soon. If the political parties want to get the votes of Brits in the UAE, they will have to begin addressing their concerns with more urgency.

fkane@thenational.ae