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The six Gulf states of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Oman collectively form the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).

Both the UK and US have deep security and trading ties with the region and are active in patrols in the Gulf to protect shipping. UK support for the region through the Gulf Strategy Fund (GSF) has proved controversial, however. In 2021, the APPG on Democracy and Human Rights in the Gulf argued UK support lacks transparency and the GSF has compromised UK commitments to human rights—something the UK Government has denied.

GCC members do not act as a monolithic bloc, having competing foreign and economic policies. Relations between Qatar and other GCC states have been strained since the crisis of 2017 that saw a blockade introduced against the country, but an agreement to normalise relations was reached in 2021. Gulf states have also taken different approaches towards recognising Israel. Collectively they seek containment of Iran.

The paper also describes continuing human rights concerns in the Gulf and progress that Qatar has made in preparation for hosting the 2022 World Cup.

UK relations: Trade, security, and human rights

The UK has a close security and trading relationship with the GCC, and funds human rights, governance and trade programmes in the Gulf through the GSF. In 2021, the GCC and UK concluded a trade review, which said the two would seek to make a trading agreement. The region is currently the UK’s third-largest non-EU trading partner.

Both the RAF and Royal Navy have bases in the region to protect shipping lanes and project power. The UK has also participated in joint exercises with Gulf states. Personnel from the GCC states have received training in the UK.

The UK’s engagement with the GCC has drawn criticism because of the human rights record of Gulf countries. All six states are considered amongst the least free for press and religious freedom and retain the death penalty. All, except Bahrain, criminalise same-sex relationships, and LGBT+ people commonly face discrimination. 

In 2021, the APPG on Democracy and Human Rights in the Gulf argued the GSF has supported human rights violations in the region and that it lacks transparency. The APPG called for the GSF to be suspended. The UK Government has denied GSF work contributes to human rights abuses and states all programmes are subject to human rights assessments.

Changing relations with the US

The Biden Administration has sought to reset relations with the region, placing US arms exports to the UAE and Saudi Arabia under review, and releasing intelligence linking Saudi Arabia, including the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, to the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi

The US has shifted its focus to the Asia-Pacific and to threats from Russia and China. However, it maintains deep defence relationships with the Gulf states. In 2021, it participated in military exercises with the UAE and Saudi Arabia.

Diplomatically, the US is seeking Gulf engagement to address the economic crisis and political instability in Lebanon, the conflict in Yemen, and on the Iran nuclear deal.

Resolution to the Qatar crisis, 2017-2021

Relationships between the Gulf states have recovered since the crisis in Qatar in 2017, which had left the country isolated in the region. Gulf states had introduced a blockade against Qatar, citing its support for the Muslim Brotherhood (which some Gulf states see as a threat to stability) and maintenance of some diplomatic ties with Iran. An agreement to establish trade and other relations was reached in January.

Regional relations: Iran, Israel and Yemen

Talks between the US and Iran on re-establishing the 2015 nuclear deal have currently stalled, following the inauguration of the new Iranian President. The GCC continues to oppose any nuclear deal with Iran that does not also put limits on wider Iranian activity in region, such as its support for proxy groups (like Hezbollah in Lebanon). Iran opposes any widening of the deal.

In the last year both the UAE and Bahrain have also recognised Israel, being the third and fourth Arab states, respectively, to do so.

Saudi Arabia has also called for a ceasefire in Yemen, where it backs the Hadi Government against Iranian-backed Houthi rebels. Saudi Arabia has also drawn criticism for potential human rights abuses in the conflict.

Attacks on merchant vessels

Iran and Iranian-backed groups have long been suspected of carrying out attacks on tankers and merchant vessels in the Gulf. In 2021, the UK, US and others accused Iran of attacking a vessel in July, leading to two deaths. An attempted hijacking of another ship occurred in August, though no party has been blamed or claimed responsibility.

The attacks are likely to increase pressure for any deal with Iran to include limits on its wider regional activity, such as backing for militia groups.

The Football World Cup in Qatar, 2022

Qatar is due to host the World Cup in November-December 2022. Significant concerns have been raised for the treatment of migrant workers in the country, and discrimination against LGBT+ people. In 2020, an estimated 95 percent of the Qatari workforce were migrant workers, numbering around 2 million.

In 2020, the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights welcomed the steps by Qatar to improve migrants’ rights, which include allowing migrants to change jobs without their employer’s permission. Amnesty International has continued to urge Fifa, the world governing body for association football, to use its leverage to end the abuse of migrant workers.

In 2020, the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association reported LGBT+ persons in Qatar continue to “face an extremely hostile context.”

Although some footballers and national clubs have called for a boycott of the 2022 competition, no country federation has formally decided to do so.

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