Saudi-British relations remain on solid ground
Washington - Images of soldiers from Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members hoisting their respective nations’ flags at a ceremony in March marking the end of military drills were the latest reminders of the close and multidimensional relations that have developed between the United States and the GCC.
For most of the predominantly young populations of those Arab countries, the United States is probably the first Western country that comes to mind when they think of a strategic, and perhaps indispensable, Western ally. However, until the early 1970s, it was the United Kingdom that had a pervasive presence in the region.
With the exception of Saudi Arabia, most GCC countries and the Yemeni port of Aden were either formal British protectorates or enjoyed close political, military and economic relations with Britain.
While Britain never exercised that same level of influence in Saudi Arabia, the founder of modern day Saudi Arabia, King Abdulaziz Al Saud, was well aware of Britain’s dominance in the world and its presence and influence in the region and was keen on establishing and maintaining good relations with the country
The history of British-Saudi relations can be traced to before the founding of modern-day Saudi Arabia in 1932. Showing the pragmatism that would characterise Saudi foreign policy, King Abdulaziz cultivated relations with Britain.
British military assistance and advisers would play an important role in the development of the Saudi state. However, the second world war took a toll on the British Empire and Britain was replaced by the United States as the predominant power in the world.
The United Kingdom continued to play an important role in the countries of the region. The strain in relations created by the 1956 Suez War in which Britain, France and Israel attacked Egypt notwithstanding, relations between Saudi Arabia and Britain have endured. A recent visit by British Prime Minister Theresa May underscored the mutually beneficial relationship, which garners wide support from current and former officials in both countries.
Saudi Arabia is Britain’s largest market in the Middle East, comprising 20% of exports in goods and services to the region in 2011. Overall bilateral trade is estimated to be $18.7 billion per year. The government estimates that more than 6,000 British companies are actively exporting to Saudi Arabia.
Britain is also the second largest cumulative investor in Saudi Arabia, after the United States. There are an estimated 200 British-Saudi joint ventures with a total investment of more than $13.5 billion. Saudi Arabia is also a source of investment into the United Kingdom, where it has an estimated $77 billion invested.
Britain and Saudi Arabia are seeking to deepen economic cooperation. Last year, Saudi Arabia announced an ambitious package of economic and social reforms known as Vision 2030 that seeks to limit the kingdom’s dependence on oil revenues. A major component for the success of the initiative is attracting direct foreign investment.
May met with the Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz, who is the architect of Vision 2030 and the head of the Economic and Development Council.
The British government has identified Saudi Arabia as a “High Growth Market”. At the same time, having voted to leave the European Union and its multilateral framework, Britain appears keen on strengthening bilateral economic cooperation. With that as a goal, May had meetings with Energy Minister Khalid al-Falih.
May and Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud talked and May was awarded the Order of King Abdulaziz. May also met with Princess Reema bint Bandar Al Saud, who is leading an effort to push physical education and sports among girls and women.
The British government highlighted what was accomplished during the visit, including an important advisory role that Britain was providing to Saudi Arabia regarding reforming its Ministry of Defence as well as its health care and educational institutions.
Prior to May’s visit to Riyadh, the spokesman for the Arab coalition supporting the government of Yemeni President Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi to regain control of the country, was harassed by protesters in London on his way to a speaking engagement. The activists appeared to object to the war effort.
However, it appears that May and the senior officials have a more nuanced understanding of the conflict that had taken on the characteristics of a civil war at least six months prior to Saudi Arabia’s intervention in March 2015.
While critics have proposed reducing Britain’s support for the Saudi war effort and others have questioned the utility of the relationship altogether, it has not endured by happenstance. In a statement released by her office, May made sure to remind the detractors that “we must never forget that intelligence we have received in the past from that country has saved potentially hundreds of lives in the UK.”
There is little doubt that this relationship will continue to grow and strengthen for the foreseeable future.