When Saudi Arabia said it was “insulted” by plans for the UK government to review ties with the kingdom, it was the latest sign of relations with the West being strained as a result of the Arab Uprisings.
Saudi Arabia has become increasingly frustrated with its main Western allies, the US and the UK, for dropping support of Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak during protests against his rule in early 2011 and offering mild support for an uprising in Bahrain. It has also taken particular issue with a suggestion by the UK Foreign Affairs Select Committee that Britain considers “how [it] can encourage democratic and liberalising reforms in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain”.
Saudi Arabia, the largest economy in the Gulf with $4bn of trade with the UK last year, has said it will launch its own review covering political and commercial ties. Riyadh sees itself as falling victim to Western hypocrisy, who want the ruling Al-Sauds as an ally now, while also wanting to support democratic change that would unseat them from power. It also sees the hand of Iran in local tensions, especially in neighbouring Bahrain and its own Eastern Province. It considers itself the West’s only friend in an increasingly volatile region.
The UK, like the US, has a diplomatic tightrope to walk, made more difficult by the Arab unrest. In previous years, it was easy to claim to be supporting the glacial pace of reform in the region, while cosying up to despotic rulers and signing multibillion-dollar trade deals.
But the Arab spring has made the possibility of political change more tantalisingly real. That has made it far more difficult for Western countries to walk the line between promoting human rights and doing business with the region.