NETWORK TO THE WORLD

Oman 2019 | DIPLOMACY | INTERVIEW

By helping GCC economies diversify and develop their capabilities in technology, life sciences, healthcare, education, and infrastructure, the UK's post-EU trade policy is hugely ambitious.

Simon Penney
BIOGRAPHY
As Her Majesty’s new Trade Commissioner for the Middle East, Simon Penney will oversee trade promotion and investment in the region, raising the profile of the region in the UK and building stronger and deeper trading relationships. He joined the Department for International Trade (DIT) following a career in the Middle East and Africa, most recently as Head of Wholesale and International Banking at First Gulf Bank. Prior to that he was Middle East & Africa Chief Executive Officer at RBS. All of the new Her Majesty’s Trade Commissioners (HMTCs) will cooperate closely with ambassadors and high commissioners, the wider diplomatic network, and other HM Government colleagues to promote UK trade and prosperity.

What are your priorities as Her Majesty's Trade Commissioner?

I have responsibility for the GCC plus Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Afghanistan and Pakistan. As one of nine of Her Majesty's Trade Commissioners, the creation of our role signals the renewed importance that the UK places on global trade and this region in particular. As the UK leaves the EU, we are very focused on building independent trade relationships globally. My remit, drawing on my private sector experience, is to promote UK exports to this region and attract regional investment to the UK. I also cover trade policy and our export credit agency UKEF. Within the region, the GCC is clearly the biggest priority. Total trade in goods and services between the UK and GCC was GBP40 billion in 2017, a 14.8% increase on 2016. Most notable is the increase in total trade in goods and services between the UK and Oman, which grew 92% YoY to GBP3.14 billion in 2017. My priority is to partner with governments and businesses across the region to really understand how we can support their diversification and transformation agendas with innovative solutions from the UK.

How do GCC states fit into your efforts to grow trade ties with countries outside the EU?

Although we are leaving the EU, we are not leaving Europe and will continue to have a significant trading relationship with our European partners. However, we will have a renewed focus to look beyond Europe and strengthen ties with the GCC. Our Prime Minister has been clear that she is looking for the “strongest possible trading relationships between the UK and the Gulf." We have established a working group, the UK-GCC Trade Working Group, to look at the details of our future trade relationship and at market access issues to improve free-flowing trade that will complement the region's diversification agenda and improve opportunities for UK firms to take advantage of the increasing breadth of the Gulf economies. GCC countries have ambitions to develop diversified and sustainable economies away from oil, each with their own detailed vision to deliver that. There are four key areas of transformation in which we are getting actively involved: technology, life sciences, healthcare, education, and infrastructure. These sectors are a great example of how UK capabilities can help strengthen economies and diversify resources. Ultimately, post-Brexit opportunities will allow us to build closer ties between the UK and the Gulf region.

What role will public-private partnerships play in the UK's investment strategy in the GCC?

The UK is one of the biggest investors in the Gulf. UK Foreign Direct Investment in the GCC is around GBP10 billion, according to 2016 data. This is driven by the huge opportunities that have arisen from reforms put in place by regional governments to drive the ease of business, such as recent rule changes in the UAE around business ownership and more flexible visas. KSA's Vision 2030 and the UAE's Vision 2021 are also providing ample investment opportunities across a number of sectors as the countries look to diversify away from oil. Our Secretary of State for International Trade, Liam Fox, places real importance on Overseas Direct Investment. We see trade and investment as a way of driving mutual prosperity and want to see British companies contribute to the development of regional economies. In terms of PPP, the UK is home to one of the world's largest and most experienced PPP markets, which has allowed the public sector to access private sector skills and expertise. UK companies have a track record across a range of sectors and can be a prime source to inform national diversification plans, particularly in the areas of education, healthcare, and infrastructure. The UK can play an important role across all these sectors. For example, UK universities are setting up across the GCC to help develop the skills of the next generation, and UK hospitals and clinics are partnering in the region to help tackle some of the critical healthcare challenges.