British Prime Minister Theresa May is to meet Gulf leaders who opened today their annual summit in Bahrain, for talks on trade ties after Britain leaves the European Union. King Salman of Gulf heavyweight Saudi Arabia opened the summit with a call for “doubling of efforts” to face regional challenges.
May is expected to meet the leaders before addressing the summit tomorrow, when she will become the first British premier and the first woman to attend the annual gathering of the six oil-rich Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states. Defence ties are also expected to be high on the agenda as Britain builds a new naval base in Bahrain, while advocacy groups have urged May to raise human rights concerns.
May’s two-day visit comes as her government faces mounting domestic criticism that it has not done enough to avoid post-Brexit disruption to British trade, which is currently carried out under EU agreements.
“I will have the opportunity to talk to all six leaders about how we can develop our trade relationship, as well as cooperation on security and defence,” May said before arriving in Manama late yesterday.
Her office said May will discuss possibilities for post-Brexit free trade arrangements with the GCC states –Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
“As the UK leaves the EU, we should seize the opportunity to forge a new trade arrangement between the UK and the Gulf,” the British premier said.
Ahead of the summit, May met King Salman, Bahrain’s King Hamad, the emir of Kuwait Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad Al-Sabah and UAE Prime Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum.
In October last year, Britain began building a naval base at Mina Salman, outside Manama, its first new permanent base in the Middle East in four decades.
May told 300 Royal Navy officers aboard HMS Ocean that she wanted to “step up our defence and security cooperation to keep British citizens safe at home and abroad”.
Britain’s force already stationed in Bahrain was “a clear demonstration of the UK’s enduring security commitment to the Gulf”, she said.
Western ties with Bahrain, however, have come under criticism from international human rights groups.
Bahrain’s Sunni minority rulers have cracked down on dissent since they crushed protests in 2011 led by the Shiite majority for a constitutional monarchy and an elected prime minister.
The main Shiite opposition group, Al-Wefaq, once the largest in parliament, has been dissolved and scores of Shiites have been stripped of their citizenship.