Red list blues: the impact of travel restrictions on UK-UAE trade

28 Jun, 2021 - Uncategorized

If you’re from the UK – or have spoken to any Briton in the last few weeks – doubtless thoughts & conversations have focused on summer plans and how expat residents can safely & legally get to the UK this summer, whilst the UAE remains on the UK’s travel ‘red list’.

I’ve heard of potential journeys via Bahrain, Greece, Italy, Israel and even Iceland as possible solutions to avoid the mandatory 10 day quarantine and hotel confinement upon arrival, all of which carry significant cost & inconvenience as well as the risk of changes to their respective travel status with the UK which might change or compound the situation further.

The other option is of course not to travel at all, and that seems to have been the main impact on business travel between the UK and UAE in recent months with very few trade visitors making the trip at all.  And although Zoom and Teams have obviously become commonplace in last year as effective media for developing business, as the world re-opens and physical travel and meetings return, the UK’s continued limitations on travel from the UAE puts bilateral commerce at a serious disadvantage.

Trade and investment is a competitive activity and the UK risks falling behind other countries, for whom ease of travel and access is not a problem, particularly given the UAE’s well known preference for doing business based on personal relationships, building trust & affinity and regular in-person meetings.

A very obvious manifestation of this is the forthcoming Arab Health trade show (held in Dubai from 20th to 25th June) where, as a result of the travel restrictions, for the first time in many years – perhaps ever? – the UK will have no formal pavilions or incoming delegations for what is the one of the world’s top three annual gatherings in this vital sector (in 2020 the show recorded approx. 60,000 visitors from 170 countries).

And whilst the UK is out of sight at Arab Health, their businesses are also out of mind for local buyers.  Competitors from around the world will be there to cement old relationships and build new ones and take market share.  Coming at a time when healthcare has never been a bigger concern globally; after Mubadala recently announced plans to invest GBP 800 million in British companies in the Life Sciences sector (which, overall, generates annual exports of GBP 30 billion) this is a serious party to be missing.

Now with Expo looming large on the horizon the UAE’s continued red list status endangers British companies’ plans to make the most of the event and leverage the UK government’s  long-term presence, significant investment and very visible commitment to the project.  This is particularly germane as post-Covid recovery is fast becoming one of the key underlying themes at Expo with all countries looking to it as a platform to develop trade and investment opportunities in person after 18 months of restrictions.

Although all commentators suggest that the red list status will change over the summer months, the continued uncertainty which makes companies’ forward planning impossible is having a tangible impact on bilateral business and means that UK firms continue to miss out on UAE opportunities that are accessible to others.

Joe Hepworth is CEO of British Centres for Business (BCB). Contact

This article was first published in Arabian Business on 10th June 2021.