Will the UK ever sacrifice its relationship with Saudi Arabia?

On 5 July, right wing counter extremism think tank the Henry Jackson Society, released a report citing Saudi Arabia as the foremost promoter of Islamic extremism in the Muslim world and the West. British politicians and the media reacted with concern at the report, pressuring the government to release a much delayed study on the funding of extremist groups in the UK. One week later, a UK court ruled arms deals to Saudi Arabia legal.

The almost simultaneous verdicts on two controversial issues, only served to further highlight the long standing inconsistency in the UK government’s attitude towards the Arab Kingdom. In recent years public opinion has turned strongly against Saudi Arabia, with its ever increasing record of human rights abuses and it’s slow to non-existent progress on the position of women in the country, who are still forbidden from driving or travelling without a male relative.

Since 2015, Saudi Arabia has also been leading a military coalition against Yemen, targeting Houthi rebels but engulfing the entire country in turmoil. Yemen is now facing one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world with 20 million people, out of a population of 25 million, requiring humanitarian assistance, warranting severe condemnation from the UN and NGOs.

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Despite this, the UK government has been reluctant to criticise the gulf state. In 2016, Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson accused Saudi Arabia of engaging in “proxy wars” in the region, adding that it was “puppeteering” due to a lack of strong leadership. Prime Minister Theresa May was quick in her assurance that this was not the view of the UK government, days later Johnson himself visited the Kingdom and affirmed the strength of ties between the two states, that the UK was committed to developing.

So why does the UK find it so impossible to break ties with Saudi Arabia? The answer: the UK does not want to.

A century old relationship

People leave the village with his belongings after Houthis captured Tubeysia village in Taiz province, Yemen on February 20, 2017. ( Abdulnasser Alseddik – Anadolu Agency )

The relationship between Britain and the Gulf Kingdom has a long history. British officials initially supported the Arab Revolt led by Hussein Ibn Ali Al-Hashimi in 1916, looking for a political force in the region that was independent of the Ottoman Empire that could divide the Arab world into more easily British controlled principalities. However when Ibn Saud, another British protégé, wrestled control of the Nejd province and then proceeded to unite the rest of Arabia, the UK was equally happy to shift its support conclusively behind him. Having already signed a treaty placing him under British protection in 1915, the UK officially recognised his control in 1922, marked by then Colonial Secretary Winston Churchill raising his subsidy to £100,000 ($450,000) a year. The UK had also provided arms to Ibn Saud during the First World War, a tradition that would form the cornerstone of their future relationship.

Britain’s history with Saudi Arabia is regularly referenced by officials from both states when hoping to expand relations further. Despite periods of political tension, they have largely remained staunch allies, particularly in the area of defence.

A source of regional stability

Despite the claims that Saudi Arabia has supported Islamic terrorism over the years, the Kingdom has never been an exporter of the Islamist activism that runs through the veins of Arab politics elsewhere.

When Ibn Saud consolidated his power over the region in 1932, he came to a non-negotiable agreement with the conservative Wahabbi religious establishment that whilst it could govern religious, cultural and educational affairs, it was to have no authority over political issues such as royal succession, foreign policy or the military. This arrangement has been more or less abided by for the past 80 years.

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The Arab Spring of 2011 prompted fears for the security of the Saudi leadership, as the rise of political Islam challenged the seats long held by dictators. After quashing protests elsewhere in the Gulf, Saudi Arabia backed the ousting of democratically elected President Mohamed Morsi in Egypt two years later, funnelling a $20 billion package along with the UAE in support of General Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi’s presidency.

Morsi is a member of the Muslim Brotherhood with whom the Kingdom has had a mixed history. Prince Nayef Bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud, Saudi interior minister until 2012, was quick to bring the Brotherhood into the picture of international terrorism, famously accusing them of being the “source of all evils” in the region following the 9/11 attacks in New York.

Today, the Kingdom stands arm in arm with Al-Sisi accusing Qatar, which backed Morsi’s government in 2013, of being a proxy for terrorism, whilst Saudi Arabian forces continue to play an active role in the US-led coalition against Daesh. Saudi officials have regularly spoken of their commitment to countering terrorism, and have made numerous attempts to normalise relations with Israel over the past few decades.

What is clear in its mixed history is that Saudi Arabia has always served its national interests, supporting groups it perceived to be useful in countering other powerful forces in the region. The UK has long recognised this, with Sir Tom Phillips, UK ambassador to Saudi Arabia between 2010 and 2012, calling the Kingdom a “long standing ally and key partner in a complex and volatile region”.

Saudi Arabia is not a country trying to impose political Islam inside or outside of its borders. It is a country that acts tactically to fulfil its own regional security and maintain its close relationship with other Western powers. It enjoys the pedestal of controlling the two holiest sites in the Islamic faith and encourages the injection of some aspects of religion into legislation, but this is to be implemented under – and at the strict discretion – of the monarchy.

Given Britain’s disinclination towards the rise of Islamist groups, the UK is willing to tolerate Saudi Arabia’s inconsistent religiosity, as long as it commits itself to countering other such influences in the region.

Between arms and oil

Trade is often identified as the glue that keeps the UK and Saudi Arabia together, with an exchange of state essentials; oil and arms.

The sale of arms to Saudi Arabia has continued since the First World War; the UK was the largest exporter of weapons to Saudi Arabia between 2010 and 2014 according to the Stockholm Institute. The UK relies on lucrative arms sales not only to sustain its economy, but to retain Britain’s capacity as a global military power. Such a relationship is not easily, nor willingly, given up regardless of the accusations made as to how the Kingdom uses such weaponry.

Amnesty International activists march with homemade replica missiles bearing the message 'Made in Britain, destroying lives in Yemen' across Westminster Bridge towards Downing Street during a protest over UK arms sales to Saudi Arabia in March

Activists march with homemade replica missiles bearing the message ‘Made in Britain, destroying lives in Yemen’ during a protest over UK arms sales to Saudi Arabia in London, UK on March 2016

In May, the British Defence Secretary Michael Fallon caused controversy when he said Saudi Arabia was “defending itself” from Houthi rebels. He brushed off allegations of war crimes being committed, including the targeting of Yemeni civilians, despite the conflict causing the largest international food security crisis, in what was already one of the poorest countries in the world. Instead, he further emphasised that Britain would stand by its ally: “Saudi Arabia is a key partner of ours — an enormously important trading partner, a commercial partner, but also a defence partner.”

In return, the UK receives its fair share of resources from the oil rich state. Analysis of HM Revenues and Customs’ figures by Greenpeace Energy Desk show that in 2015, 83 per cent of arms exports, worth almost £900 million ($1.2 billion), went to Saudi Arabia. Over the same period, the UK imported £900 million ($1.2 billion) worth of oil from the Kingdom, accounting for five per cent of all oil imported.

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The UK is not alone in valuing the Arab state for its business potential. Saudi’s production of oil has acted as immunity against criticism of its undesirable domestic activity, especially with the US, with whom it initially founded the now state-owned Saudi Arabian Oil Company, Aramco. The London Stock Exchange is now but one among many pitching to win a piece of the $1 trillion oil company when it goes public next year.

Proponents of the Saudi-UK partnership argue that a 100-year-old association of defence and trade is not easily broken. But the UK’s proverbial hands are not tied in this relationship. On the contrary, the British government is well aware that Saudi Arabia is beneficial to it in more ways than one, and is crucial to securing its financial and political interests. As such, human rights, democracy and freedom, all values the UK claims to uphold, are of secondary consequence. Given this understanding, the relationship between the UK and Saudi Arabia is likely to last for a long time to come.