Riyadh's move to confront criticism may backfire

27 October 2015

There has been a broad range of allegations aimed at Saudi Arabia

The growing criticism this year of Saudi Arabia in the UK had passed with little response from Riyadh. Then on October 25 Saudi Arabia’s Ambassador to the UK responded. He wrote a column for the Daily Telegraph that warned of “potentially serious repercussions that could damage the mutually beneficial strategic partnership” that London and Riyadh enjoy.

Mohammed bin Nawaf bin Abdulaziz’s letter was written in response to growing criticism of Saudi Arabia from UK politicians and media on a broad range of topics, including military operations in Yemen, Saudi Arabia’s election to the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC), human rights within the kingdom, the management of the annual Hajj pilgrimage, the Syrian refugee crisis, and Riyadh’s alleged links with extremist groups.

Much of the criticism has come as Riyadh deals with a difficult 2015 that has seen a change of leadership, a sharp fall in oil prices, and growing instability in the Middle East, as well as domestic crises such as the Hajj stampede. Unlike much of the kingdom’s politics these issues have had global impact and as a result have been tackled publicly in the full glare of the international media spotlight.

This has created perceived weakness in the kingdom, and in a show of strength, the ambassador demonstrated the kingdom’s willingness to combat these issues directly.

He described allegations concerning the kingdom and its relationship with terrorist groups such as Al-Qaeda and Isis were disingenuous, said claims that the Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman al-Saud’s convoy caused the stampede that killed hundreds of Hajj pilgrims this year were untrue, and highlighted the fact that 2.5 million displaced Syrians live in Saudi Arabia.

The ambassador also said that the leader of the UK’s parliamentary opposition Jeremy Corbin’s claims that he convinced UK Prime Minister David Cameron to cancel a prison consultancy contract was another example of the mutual respect normally enjoyed by Saudi Arabia and the UK being breached.

Much is at stake for both London and Riyadh. Commercially, Saudi Arabia is a key trading partner for the UK, with UK companies playing a leading role in the construction, defence and financial sectors, and the expertise and equipment provided has helped the kingdom develop and prosper. Politically, Saudi Arabia is the largest GCC state and with its vast economic resources plays a key role in politics of the region, often in partnership with the UK.

By finally responding so publicly, Saudi Arabia clearly wants this relationship to continue. But at the same time it does not want to be lectured to on how it conducts its own affairs. The danger with this tactic is that although the UK government may take note, opposition parties and the media may interpret the response as further weakness from within the kingdom.

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