• Official voices from the kingdom attacking British hypocrisy over human rights have not been heard this time around
  • It may suggest a greater maturity developing in Saudi responses to these kinds of issues
  • Britain just may not be as important to the Saudis as some British officials would care to admit
  • France has steadily built up its influence in the Gulf, deploying a stronger policy support for Saudi interests in Syria than the UK

The British government has had to deal with a rising tide of press criticism of its perceived too-tight relationship with Saudi Arabia this year.

The decision to lower the Union flag on public buildings in the capital after the death of King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al-Saud in January attracted much local flak.

Revelations in leaked cables in September suggesting the UK had made a secret pact with the kingdom in 2013 to help get it elected to the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC), in exchange for Saudi support of the UK to the same body, poured more fuel on an already combustible situation.

Events came to a head in mid-October, amid frenzied public focus on the plight of a 74-year-old British pensioner in Jeddah, Karl Andree. Having already spent a year in prison for transporting home-made wine in his car, he faced the prospect of 360 lashes.

Government in turmoil

Just as the press was getting wind of the story, the British cabinet was revealed to be in turmoil over Saudi Arabia.

Big numbers

£7bn

Value of goods and services exported by the UK to Saudi Arabia in 2014

£4bn

Value of goods exported by the UK to Saudi Arabia in 2014

6,000

Number of UK firms exporting goods to Saudi Arabia

£11.5bn

Estimated value of joint ventures between UK and Saudi firms

200

Number of UK firms with Saudi joint ventures

£4bn

Value of arms sales between UK and Saudi Arabia from May 2010 to March 2015

Justice Secretary Michael Gove was pitted against Foreign Minister Philip Hammond over the former’s bid to scrap a £6m ($9.3m) six-month contract to design a training programme for Saudi prison officers, which was submitted early in 2015 by Justice Solutions International (JSI), the commercial arm of the UK Ministry of Justice.

The cabinet dispute encapsulated the long-standing battle between foreign policy realists, who put strategic state-to-state interests above human rights issues, and those viewing an ethical policy as more important.

Gove is believed to have argued that human rights concerns surrounding the Saudi government – particularly in light of the death sentences pending on two teenage dissidents – meant the deal could not go ahead as planned.

Contract cancelled

In the end – and contrary to expectations – Gove’s human rights argument won. On 13 October, Downing Street announced the contract had been cancelled. 

UK prime minister David Cameron made no mention of human rights in the decision, but with a British citizen facing flogging and two Shia protesters on death row, now was evidently not the time to be seen to be siding with Saudi King Salman’s regime.

[Riyadh understands] there is going to be criticism and that they will just have to live with it

Jane Kinninmont, Chatham House

The position seemed to contrast with that taken by former prime minister Tony Blair in 2006. His government shelved an investigation by the Serious Fraud Office into UK-based BAE Systems’ Al-Yamama arms deal with the kingdom.

But Cameron may have had little option. “There is now a sense that Saudi Arabia is in a weakened position, with falling oil prices and internal difficulties,” says Kristian Coates-Ulrichsen, Middle East fellow at US-based Rice University’s Baker Institute. “That has emboldened critics to speak up about rethinking Britain’s relationship with the kingdom.    

So far, the Saudi response has been muted.

Official voices from the kingdom attacking British hypocrisy over human rights have not been heard this time around. That in itself may reflect the very small, symbolic scale of the JSI deal with the Saudi police.

The apparent lack of concern from Saudi Arabia is in marked contrast with the anger Riyadh displayed at the UK parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee report, which was issued in late 2013 and which highlighted in relatively mild language the challenges surrounding British commercial and political relations with major Gulf allies.

Greater maturity

But it may also suggest a greater maturity developing in Saudi responses to these kinds of issues.

“The lack of any piqued comments about [opposition leader] Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour conference speech attacking Saudi Arabia over human rights suggests a concerted decision not to overreact,” says Jane Kinninmont, deputy head of the Middle East and North Africa programme at UK think-tank Chatham House. “They understand there is going to be criticism and that they will just have to live with it.

More troubling for Cameron would be if the apparent composure displayed by Riyadh meant it was just not that bothered by the UK’s public agonising over ties with the kingdom.

Britain just may not be as important to the Saudis as some British officials would care to admit.

Other partners

In the same week that London was seeking to extract itself from the prison contract, France’s Prime Minister Manuel Valls was in Riyadh to sign $11bn-worth of arms deals with the kingdom, along with $2bn of Saudi public investment commitment in French private renewable energy funds.

The doubling down on the French relationship may show to [the kingdom’s] allies that if things don’t improve, they do have alternatives

Kristian Coates-Ulrichsen, Rice University

France is now getting much closer to the Saudis, reflecting the latter’s attempt to diversify its defence relationships with Western efforts. The deal underlined Paris’ renewed effort to present itself as the new best friend of Saudi Arabia, supplying top-end military kit that is unlikely to attract the kind of investigations the Blair government was forced to quash under heavy Saudi pressure nine years ago.

Does that mean the Saudis no longer view the UK as an important ally and trading partner? Unlikely. Despite Riyadh’s increasing dalliance with France, London remains a hugely important strategic crux for Saudi Arabia.

Limited options

For one thing, says Kinninmont, Saudi Arabia has limited options when it comes to finding powerful global allies.

“The Saudis have made friends with rising trading powers in Asia, but there are very few that could become major security partners, especially at a time when Saudi-Iran relations are so polarised,” she says.

The Saudi leadership will have appreciated the efforts the Cameron government has made to provide support over its Yemen military campaign, despite some domestic disquiet at the perceived outsourcing of the UK’s Yemen policy to Riyadh.

Despite the recent hiccup, London’s policy has not shifted from its traditional axis that continues to invest Riyadh with huge strategic significance, and not just as a market for British goods and armaments. 

And yet the British may have to get used to rivals encroaching on their once privileged turf. France has steadily built up its influence in the Gulf, deploying a stronger policy support for Saudi interests in Syria than the UK.

“The doubling down on the French relationship may show to [the kingdom’s] allies that if things don’t improve, they do have alternatives,” says Coates-Ulrichsen.

Trade: What is at stake for the UK

A certain degree of unease in British business circles could be expected after Prime Minister David Cameron’s decision to end a Justice Ministry cooperation deal with Saudi Arabia.

The stakes are high; the UK exported about £7bn ($10.8bn) of goods and services to the kingdom in 2014, with goods exports at more than £4bn.

More than 6,000 UK firms actively export goods to Saudi Arabia, and the UK is the kingdom’s second-largest cumulative investor, with about 200 joint ventures estimated to be worth a total of £11.5bn.

These figures exclude a significant line in arms sales, estimated to have generated almost £4bn between May 2010 and March 2015.

The UK Department for Business, Innovation and Skills has designated Saudi Arabia as a priority market for UK arms exports.

But the commercial relations go well beyond high-level defence cooperation. British firms are also looking to help in small business creation in the kingdom.

The Saudi British Joint Business Council (SBJBC) is preparing to hold a partnership forum to bring together more than 50 Saudi and British small to medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in the digital economy and creative industry sectors in London, to share the UK’s experience in developing an SME ecosystem and tech hubs.

“We’re not just here to support the big guys, we want to reach out to small firms,” says SBJBC executive director Chris Innes-Hopkins.

“What we are keen to get across to UK industry is the diversification challenge and opportunities in Saudi Arabia, the need for skills and expertise.

“This is no longer just a market to sell to, it’s a market where you need to consider longer-term partnerships and joint ventures. That’s what a lot of competitors are doing and we need to do the same.”

British firms are unlikely to feel any imminent backlash from the media focus on Saudi Arabia’s human rights record.

“We are affected by the political backdrop, but we are very much focused on business-to-business cooperation and we haven’t noticed a direct impact on that,” says Innes-Hopkins.

“We’re more concerned about the challenge of overcoming sometimes negative and ill-informed perceptions at this end.“

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