UK prime minister Theresa May is heading to Bahrain this week, to scope out new post-Brexit free trade deals with leaders of the Gulf countries, among criticism that the controversial human rights records of the region should hinder trade.

May, who will be the first woman to attend the annual Gulf Cooperation Council summit, is expected to agree to establish a new joint working group to examine how to unlock £30bn of opportunities identified by the government for UK businesses in the region. The figure covers 15 different sectors over the next five years.

“The Gulf is already our largest investor and our second-biggest non-European export market and I think there is huge potential to expand this relationship in the years ahead,” says May.

“Across these six countries there are exciting opportunities for UK businesses, from energy to education, infrastructure to healthcare and here in the UK, investment from the Gulf is helping to regenerate cities from Aberdeen to Teeside, Manchester to London.”

Commenting on the trip, professor of strategic management at Warwick Business School, Kamel Mellahi, tells GTR: “There has been an ongoing dialogue about post-Brexit trade deals between the UK and Gulf states, but there is no reason to indicate that radical changes in the trade and business structure is going to occur in the near future.”

“Some deals will be announced but, as usual, defence and security-related deals are going to be the piece de resistance.”

The prime minister addressed concerns over the well-documented human rights abuses of her hosts, particularly over the way protests were suppressed during the Arab Spring, by insisting greater economic ties will allow the UK to have greater influence in time.

“No doubt there will be some people in the UK who say we shouldn’t seek stronger trade and security ties with these countries because of their record on human rights,” she says.

“But we don’t uphold our values and human rights by turning our back on this issue. We achieve far more by stepping up, engaging with these countries and working with them to encourage and support their plans for reform.”

A series of additional measures to bolster bilateral trade between the two regions are also expected to be agreed during the visit. They include a delegation of small and medium-sized businesses visiting Abu Dhabi in January to promote UK business interests in space technology and a new agreement with Saudi Arabia to allow UK businesses to obtain five-year multiple entry visas for the first time.