Britain’s conflicting signals unlikely to satisfy Saudi Arabia

Observers are wondering why Britain would try to appease Turkey at the expense of its good ties with Saudi Arabia, with whom it is also looking to secure economic cooperation deals.
Thursday 09/07/2020
Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz receives Britain’s Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs Dominic Raab, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia March 5, 2020. (Reuters)
Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz receives Britain’s Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs Dominic Raab, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia March 5, 2020. (Reuters)

RIYADH – As the UK prepares for the economic impact of Brexit and battles the coronavirus pandemic, it is using old, ineffective tactics in engaging with Saudi Arabia.  

While it is looking for increased economic cooperation with Riyadh as it works to secure its exit from the European Union, London is sending contradictory signals that may not encourage the Saudis to respond positively.

On Wednesday, British Defence Minister Ben Wallace held a phone call with Saudi Deputy Defence Minister Prince Khalid bin Salman bin Abdulaziz. 

During the call, Wallace affirmed his “government’s keenness to strengthen defence relations between the two friendly countries, especially in the field of military exports to the Kingdom,” a statement by the Saudi Press Agency (SPA) said.

Wallace also “expressed his country’s appreciation for Saudi Arabia’s role in addressing threats to stability in the region, especially in regards to protecting maritime corridors and ensuring freedom of navigation,” the statement added.

Observers in the Gulf region, however, are sceptical of the UK’s engagement with Saudi Arabia due to the UK’s recent imposition of sanctions on 20 Saudis over their alleged involvement in the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

By attempting to secure economic and military deals with the kingdom at the same time it is imposing sanctions on it over the Khashoggi affair, observers believe the UK is trying to shore up important trade deals while also appeasing civil society groups known for engaging in an aggressive anti-Riyadh lobbying campaign.  

Just one day after sanctioning the 20 Saudis on Monday, the UK sent a totally different signal, ending a moratorium on arms sales to Saudi Arabia.

A court ruling last year forced the British government to suspend sales of arms and military equipment to Saudi Arabia because of the risk they would be used in the Yemeni conflict.

But after a review, Liz Truss, Britain’s international trade secretary, said on Tuesday that procedures had been revised to comply with the court’s concerns, and that the suspension of licenses for the export of arms to Saudi Arabia was at an end.

“I have assessed that there is not a clear risk that the export of arms and military equipment to Saudi Arabia might be used in the commission of a serious violation of international humanitarian law,” Truss said in the statement.

“The government will now begin the process of clearing the backlog of licence applications for Saudi Arabia and its coalition partners that has built up since 20 June last year.”

It is clear that the UK is trying to appease both Saudi Arabia and Turkey, which recently held a mock trial of the Saudi suspects in the Khashoggi case. 

Wallace’s call to Prince Khalid coincided with a visit by Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu to London and his meeting Wednesday with his British counterpart Dominic Raab.

During the meeting, Cavusoglu and Raab discussed bilateral relations before and after Britain’s exit from the European Union, which suggests that Britain is currying favour with Turkey by announcing sanctions against the 20 Saudis. 

Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, right, and Britain’s Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab meet in London, July 8. (AP)
Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, right, and Britain’s Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab meet in London, July 8. (AP)

While the sanctions have no real value for the UK, they do serve Ankara politically, in exchange for Turkish economic cooperation with London after Brexit.

Here, observers are wondering why Britain would try to appease Turkey at the expense of its good ties with Saudi Arabia, with whom it is also looking to secure economic cooperation deals. 

Observers attribute the UK’s contradictory foreign policy approach to a reliance on old tactics that are no longer effective, especially given Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud’s commitment to equality, fairness and mutual respect in foreign relations. 

Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen to confront the Iran-backed Houthi rebels coincided with an increase in human rights campaigns criticising it, particularly in Britain. However, London has been silent on such campaigns, despite being the main beneficiary of arms sales to Saudi Arabia.

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia has allowed British authorities to monitor military operations in Yemen by assigning British military advisers to observe and follow up on the Arab coalition’s activities. This means any criticism directed at Riyadh on this front is felt by the UK.

Saudi arms purchases account for 43% of Britain’s total arms sales over the past decade, according to a report by the Guardian newspaper on Tuesday.

Last June, Prince Khalid, during a telephone call with Wallace, thanked Britain for dispatching troops and military defence systems to the kingdom.

Saudi Arabia acquires most of its weapons from the United States, but it has dozens of major contracts whose value is estimated in the tens of billions of dollars with major European countries, notably Britain and France.