Frankly Speaking: Terror threat won’t deter British investment expansion in the Middle East, UK trade official says

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Updated 07 February 2022

Frankly Speaking: Terror threat won’t deter British investment expansion in the Middle East, UK trade official says

 Simon Penney, UK Trade Commissioner for the Middle East. (Screen grab from Frankly Speaking video)
  • Simon Penney speaks of UK business interest in KSA’s Vision 2030 strategy and prospects for UK-GCC free trade agreement
  • His comments came in the video-conversation series featuring leading policymakers and business people in the region

DUBAI: Escalating terror attacks by Iran-backed Houthis will not deter British businesses from expanding investment in the Middle East, the UK official responsible for his country’s trade with the region told Arab News.

“The GCC, and within that the UAE, have been very popular destinations for both UK exporters and tourists over many years, and we certainly don’t see any drop-off in that interest,” Simon Penney, UK trade commissioner for the Middle East, said.

“In fact, the Gulf more broadly is the UK’s third-largest export market globally, outside of the EU. We are highly confident and have every reason to believe that our position as an exporting nation to the Gulf will improve even further in the years ahead.”

He was speaking after a spate of air strikes on the UAE, claimed by backers of Yemen’s Houthi militia, in an escalation of the terror campaign that has seen drones and missiles aimed at population centers and civilian infrastructure in Saudi Arabia.

The UK authorities warned British citizens of an increased threat and urged them to be vigilant, ahead of a visit by Prince William, the Duke of Cambridge, to the UAE this week. But Penney insisted that such threats would not dent the enthusiasm of British business for investment in the region.




Simon Penney, a veteran banker, highlighted the attractions of Saudi Arabia as a trade partner for the UK. (Screen grab from Frankly Speaking video)

“We continue to see a very strong and healthy pipeline of companies doing business here,” he said.

“In fact, only last week we had (in Dubai) the Arab Health (trade fair). More than 140 UK companies made the trip out here, which was fantastic to see, not only in light of the events that you highlighted but also off the back of two years of COVID-19.”

In a wide-ranging interview on “Frankly Speaking,” the series of video conversations with leading policymakers and business people in the region, Penney — who is also the British consul in Dubai — spoke of the “passionate” interest of UK business in many sectors of Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 economic transformation strategy, the imminent prospects for a UK-GCC free trade agreement, and the potential for the Middle East to help compensate for some of the trade forgone by the UK in the post-Brexit world.

Penney, a banker in the Middle East before he took up his current role in 2018, highlighted the attractions of Saudi Arabia as a trade partner for the UK.

“I have to say I’m very passionate about the Kingdom. I’ve been working there in my various different jobs for more than a decade now and I’m as enthusiastic if not more today than I’ve ever been about the opportunities that exist in the Kingdom and across the whole of the Kingdom.”

“It’s not just about Saudi Arabia. We see a lot of activity in Qatar, obviously, with the FIFA World Cup coming up later this year, but also beyond that, in Oman, Bahrain and Kuwait. There really is a lot of interest in this region both ways.” 

He added: “In fact, only the week before last I had the opportunity to visit NEOM and I was absolutely blown away by the sheer scale of the project, by the ambition of the project, from what can only be described, really, as a blank sheet of paper today.”

UK interest in Saudi Arabia was strong across all sectors that have been energized by the Vision 2030 strategy, he said, including healthcare, education, food and drink, and leisure and entertainment.

“And energy, of course. You know, as the Kingdom and the world embarks on this journey of energy transformation toward ‘clean  growth,’ we’re seeing increasing interest around ‘clean growth’ and how we can work with the Kingdom to develop the technologies of the future,” Penney said, referring to the goal of simultaneously increasing national income and cutting greenhouse gas emissions.

British companies in the region were looking increasingly at Saudi Arabia rather than other GCC countries.

“In the UAE alone, we have 5,000 UK companies that call the UAE their home but, interestingly, as those companies look increasingly across the region for future business opportunities, it really is clear that Saudi Arabia, in particular, is going to be a major source of opportunity for those businesses,” he said.

Penney touched on the reaction in the UK to the recent proposals by the government of Saudi Arabia, which will require multinational companies to have their headquarters in Riyadh in order to conduct official business in the Kingdom.

“I think it’s varied. I know a lot of large British businesses that have been working in the Kingdom for quite some time that are actually embracing that because it makes good business sense — it’s where the majority of the business that companies are starting to do is, and you know it makes sense to be located in the Kingdom,” he said.

“I know other companies have a slightly longer-term watching brief on that. But I think companies will make decisions around what makes commercial sense. Certainly, in a lot of the companies that I’ve spoken to, based on what I said around the scale of opportunity that Saudi presents, that actually it will make good business sense to do so.”

Penney said: “It’s not just about Saudi Arabia. We see a lot of activity in Qatar, obviously, with the FIFA World Cup coming up later this year, but also beyond that, in Oman, Bahrain and Kuwait. There really is a lot of interest in this region both ways.”




Simon Penny says the GCC is the UK’s third-largest export market, outside of the EU, third behind the US and China. (Screen grab from Frankly Speaking video)

As someone who has been closely involved in preparations for a free trade agreement between the UK and the GCC, Penney outlined the next steps of that negotiations process.

“We will be launching negotiations for a GCC free trade agreement in the spring of this year,” he said.

“We have just concluded a parliamentary process, which is a uniquely UK process we need to go through before we can launch FTA negotiations. That 14-week consultation closed in mid-January.”

He added: “We’re now going through a process of assimilating and capturing all the feedback that we received from businesses and stakeholders during that consultation period. We’re factoring that into the negotiating strategy and approach the UK will adopt as we commence those FTA negotiations with the GCC.”

Since the decision to leave the EU, the UK has been seeking to put in place trade alliances with other major economic blocs as part of the “Global Britain” strategy. However, Penney insisted a UK-GCC agreement was not just a way of compensating for business lost with Europe in the wake of Brexit.

“On the contrary, I think, if anything, it’s going to spur business further. The GCC already is the UK’s third-largest export market, outside of the EU, third behind the US and China,” he said.

“So, already today the Gulf features very highly in the minds of UK exporters. We’re highly confident that by putting in place a free trade agreement, we’ll be able to reduce even further some of the barriers and impediments that businesses face in doing business here, which are not unique to the Gulf.”

Penney insisted that political uncertainty in the UK, where Prime Minister Boris Johnson is increasingly beleaguered after a series of scandals, would not deter Middle East investors from doing business with the UK.

“We don’t see any let-up in investor interest in the UK,” he said.

“In fact, since we’ve left the EU and the referendum in 2016, in particular, we’ve seen investor interest increase exponentially. Confidence in the UK, I would say, is probably the highest we have seen for a very long time.”


US drone strike kills militant leader in Syria

US drone strike kills militant leader in Syria
Updated 17 sec ago

US drone strike kills militant leader in Syria

US drone strike kills militant leader in Syria
  • The strike took out a man described as a leader of the Hurras Al-Deen group
  • Hurras Al-Deen is a relatively small but powerful armed group led by Al-Qaeda loyalists
IDLIB, Syria: A US drone strike in northwestern Syria killed a Yemeni leader of a local militant group affiliated to Al-Qaeda, the US military and a Syrian war monitor said.
The strike, carried out on Monday just before midnight (2100 GMT) on the eastern edge of the city of Idlib, took out a man described as a leader of the Hurras Al-Deen group.
“Abu Hamzah Al-Yemeni was traveling alone on a motorcycle at the time of the strike,” US Central Command said in a statement, adding that an “initial review indicates no civilian casualties.”
The US is “highly confident” that the strike, carried out from a drone, killed Abu Hamzah Al-Yemeni, a US official with knowledge of the operation told CNN, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which relies on a wide network of sources inside Syria, confirmed on Tuesday that Yemeni was killed in the attack, saying it was the second such attempt to neutralize him after a similar strike last year.
An AFP correspondent in Idlib said that members of Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS), a rival militant group that dominates the area, gathered at the scene of the strike shortly after it happened and took away Yemeni’s charred remains.
HTS, whose leadership includes many ex-members of Al-Qaeda’s former Syria franchise, has tried to cast itself as a credible political force in the Idlib region.
Since a 2020 cease-fire agreement reached by Moscow and Turkey, the main foreign broker in northern Syria, HTS has come under pressure to crack down on the myriad of other militant factions still present in the Idlib region.
Monday’s strike was the second US operation in June to target a senior militant in Syria.
US forces captured Hani Ahmed Al-Kurdi, a leader of the Daesh group, on June 16 during a raid in Aleppo province.
They also killed Daesh leader Abu Ibrahim Al-Hashimi Al-Qurashi during an operation in Atme, a region of Idlib province, on February 3.
Hurras Al-Deen is a relatively small but powerful armed group led by Al-Qaeda loyalists.
It is estimated to have 2,000 to 2,500 fighters in rebel-held Syria, according to the UN.

First flight of Hajj pilgrims from Dubai departs on Thursday

First flight of Hajj pilgrims from Dubai departs on Thursday
Updated 47 min 42 sec ago

First flight of Hajj pilgrims from Dubai departs on Thursday

First flight of Hajj pilgrims from Dubai departs on Thursday

DUBAI: The Dubai Airports’ Hajj Committee said the first flight carrying Hajj pilgrims is scheduled to depart Dubai for Madinah on Thursday, an official statement said. 

The Hajj Committee at Dubai Airports announced that it finalized preparations that would ensure a “smooth and seamless airport experience” for pilgrims traveling to Saudi Arabia. 

The Committee said the operator has earmarked dedicated counters at check-in, immigration, and security, while special departure gates have been arranged to accommodate passengers traveling on Hajj flights.

Mohammad Al Marzouqi, Head of the Hajj Committee at Dubai Airports, urged pilgrims to arrive at the airport four hours before their scheduled departure to ensure they have adequate time to complete travel procedures. 

The travelers must make sure they have their passport, Emirates ID, vaccinations cards and Hajj Permit ready before they arrive at the airport, Al Marzouqi added.

The Saudia airline will operate the first official Hajj flight from Dubai, departing from DXB with a Dubai government delegation for Madinah on June 30.


Israeli parliament votes to dissolve, hold new elections

Israeli parliament votes to dissolve, hold new elections
Updated 25 min 10 sec ago

Israeli parliament votes to dissolve, hold new elections

Israeli parliament votes to dissolve, hold new elections
  • The opposition’s readiness to dissolve parliament suggested that Benjamin Netanyahu’s efforts to form a new government had stalled

JERUSALEM: The Israeli parliament unanimously approved early Tuesday a draft bill to dissolve parliament, a key legislative step that pushes the country closer toward its fifth election in less than four years.
Members of Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s outgoing coalition and the opposition led by ex-premier Benjamin Netanyahu have been sparring in Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, since last week over a dissolution bill.
The coalition said it wanted quick approval of the law after Bennett announced last week that his year-old, ideologically divided eight-party alliance was no longer tenable.
But Netanyahu and his allies have been holding talks seeking to form a new Netanyahu-led government within the current parliament, which would avert new elections.
The sides have traded legislative jabs but finally agreed late Monday to advance a bill that would be finalized as law by the end of Wednesday.
The opposition’s readiness to dissolve parliament suggested that Netanyahu’s efforts to form a new government had stalled.
Early Tuesday, the Knesset House committee approved the bill. It was then brought to the plenum for its first reading, which it passed 53-0.
According to the bill, parliament would dissolve, with new elections to be held on October 25 or November 1, with the date to be set after further negotiations.
The bill must then be approved in two further full Knesset votes.
At midnight after the bill’s secures final approval, Bennett will hand power to Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, in accordance with the power-sharing deal they agreed following inconclusive elections last year.
The Bennett coalition, a motley alliance of religious nationalists, secular hawks, centrists, doves and Arab Islamists, was imperilled by its ideological divides from its outset.
The final straw, according to the premier, was a failure to renew a measure that ensures Jewish settlers in the occupied West Bank live under Israeli law.
Bennett, the former head of a settler lobby group, said the measure’s expiration on June 30 would have brought security risks and “constitutional chaos.”
Dissolving parliament before the expiration date means the so-called West Bank law will remain in force until a new government takes office.


US strike targets leader of Al-Qaeda-linked group in Syria: Centcom

US strike targets leader of Al-Qaeda-linked group in Syria: Centcom
Updated 28 June 2022

US strike targets leader of Al-Qaeda-linked group in Syria: Centcom

US strike targets leader of Al-Qaeda-linked group in Syria: Centcom
  • Initial review indicates no civilian casualties
  • The US “highly confident” the strike killed Abu Hamzah al Yemeni, says US official

WASHINGTON: The US military said it carried out a “kinetic strike” targeting a leader of the Hurras Al-Din jihadist group, an Al-Qaeda affiliate, in the Syrian province of Idlib on Monday.
“Abu Hamzah al Yemeni was traveling alone on a motorcycle at the time of the strike,” US Central Command said in a statement, adding that an “initial review indicates no civilian casualties.”
“The removal of this senior leader will disrupt Al-Qaeda’s ability to carry out attacks against US citizens, our partners, and innocent civilians around the world,” Centcom said.
The US is “highly confident” that the strike, carried out from a drone, killed Abu Hamzah al Yemeni, a US official with knowledge of the operation told CNN, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The strike was the second US operation in June to target a senior jihadist in Syria.
US forces captured Hani Ahmed Al-Kurdi, a leader of Daesh group, on June 16 during a raid in Aleppo province.
They also killed Daesh leader Abu Ibrahim Al-Hashimi Al-Qurashi during an operation in Atme, a region of Idlib province, on February 3.


Dubai Customs make 936 drug seizures in just 4 months 

Dubai Customs make 936 drug seizures in just 4 months 
At Dubai International Airport, Dubai Customs officers thwarted an attempt to smuggle 97 capsules of heroin. (File/AFP)
Updated 28 June 2022

Dubai Customs make 936 drug seizures in just 4 months 

Dubai Customs make 936 drug seizures in just 4 months 

DUBAI: Dubai Customs have made 936 drug seizures at its customs ports in the first four months of 2022, state news agency WAM reported. 
 Dubai Customs successfully thwarted hundreds of attempts to smuggle narcotic substances, including tramadol tablets, captagon, opium, heroin, hemp seeds, crystal meth, marijuana, and other narcotics, according to WAM. 
The major seizures in the first four months of 2022 included an attempt to smuggle amphetamines into the country in 2,968 boxes of coffee creamer, which was discovered at Jebel Ali port.  
At Dubai International Airport, Dubai Customs officers thwarted an attempt to smuggle 97 capsules of heroin weighing at 955 grams that a passenger had swallowed. 
The Inland Customs Centers Management made 10 seizures of crystal meth during the first four months of this year.
An African passenger at Dubai International Airport was caught trying to smuggle 42 kilograms of marijuana hidden inside bags of dried hot peppers. 
With the use of early warning technology represented by the Smart Risk Engine, authorities were able to identify all suspicious shipments in advance, WAM reported. 

 


The customs centers are provided with the latest inspection devices, including an advanced container inspection system – the latest integrated global system for scanning and inspecting containers and moving trucks. 
Between January and April 2022, the Passenger Operations Department made 222 seizures, while the Inland Customs Centers Management made 501 seizures. During those four months, the Air Cargo Centers Management made 207 seizures, and the Sea Customs Centers Management made six seizures. 
The latest seizures are part of Dubai Customs’ aim to counter all forms of smuggling attempts, especially narcotics, and protect society and the national economy from their negative effects, the WAM report said. 
“Protecting the community is a major strategic goal in Dubai Customs and its five-year plan, and we are giving this role a great priority in light of the increasing risks, and as part of our commitment to our national duty,” said Ahmed Mahboob Musabih, Director-General of Dubai Customs and CEO of Ports, Customs and Free Zone Corporation.