The UK government has come under fire from human rights groups after it launched free trade agreement (FTA) negotiations with the Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC).

The first round of talks between the UK and the bloc, which is made up of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, are expected to begin this summer, the government says, adding that the proposed FTA will be an “ambitious, comprehensive and modern agreement fit for the 21st century”.

Equivalent to the UK’s seventh-largest export market, total trade between the UK and the GCC was worth £33.1bn in 2021. The bloc’s demand for international products and services is expected to grow by 35% to £800bn by 2035, which the UK says will open “huge” new opportunities for its businesses.

Government analysis shows that a deal with the GCC is expected to increase trade by at least 16%, add at least £1.6bn a year to the UK economy and contribute an additional £600mn to UK workers’ annual wages.

Among big winners if a trade pact is signed would be British farmers and producers, as the Gulf is highly dependent on imported food. British food and drink exports to GCC countries were worth £625mn last year, and are currently subject to tariffs of anything between 5% and 25%.

“We welcome the launch of free trade negotiations with the GCC, strengthening trade opportunities which will ensure that British manufacturing benefits from future positive flows of goods and services into the Gulf region,” says Stephen Phipson, CEO of Make UK, a manufacturers’ organisation. “We look forward to working with government to make sure manufacturers large and small are able to benefit from the business possibilities this deal will open up.”

Arguably the bigger benefit from the agreement will be around securing energy supplies as the UK seeks to reduce its dependence on Russia amid ever-increasing sanctions on the country following its invasion of Ukraine.

However, the proposed trade deal is not without controversy. During a consultation period held by the government ahead of entering talks, numerous stakeholders raised concerns about the GCC’s record on human rights, including the Trades Union Congress (TUC), a federation that represents the majority of trade unions in England and Wales, which highlighted “systematic violations”. Among issues, the TUC drew attention to the GCC’s ‘kafala’ system which ties a migrant worker’s visa to a specific employer, which it says has “entrenched a system of modern slavery and fuelled the exploitation of millions of migrant workers”, impunity for violence against women, and the death of hundreds of construction workers during the construction of World Cup 2022 stadiums in Qatar due to poor health and safety regulations.

In response, the UK government said that it will “continue to speak frankly about these issues with our GCC partners”, adding that its policy is “to engage countries whose human rights record falls short, as opposed to isolation and removing our ability to support higher standards”.

“By having strong economic relationships with partners, the government can have more open discussions on a range of issues, including human rights,” the government added.

Nonetheless, the extent to which the GCC is open to including provisions for human rights within trade deals is unclear. “The UK government has consistently claimed trade will not come at the expense of human rights,” says Tom Wills, trade project manager at the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre, a London-based NGO. “Beginning a new trade negotiation gives the government an opportunity to explain how they will deliver on that promise – but we’re none the wiser about how a UK-Gulf deal will uphold rights in the region.”

He adds that the UK should not be signing any trade deal with the Gulf countries unless it contains clear and enforceable commitments to human rights: “The GCC’s trade negotiations with the EU failed because the EU refused to budge on their policy of including human rights conditions in trade agreements. It seems that the UK will be happy to abandon these basic human rights standards in pursuit of a quick deal.”

This isn’t the first time the UK has been accused of overlooking non-economic issues in order to land a post-Brexit trade deal. In putting together the UK-Australia free trade agreement, signed in December 2021, the UK’s trade and business secretaries allegedly agreed to remove references to temperatures in the Paris Agreement, according to accusations by environmental campaign group Greenpeace, which cited a leaked email.

In an appearance before the Foreign Affairs committee on June 28 where she was quizzed on how a UK-GCC trade deal would mesh with the UK’s position of challenging repressive states, UK foreign secretary Liz Truss brushed off concerns, saying: “We are dealing in a world where we have to make difficult decisions and I think it is right that we build that closer trading relationship with the Gulf states.”