Garvan Walshe was National and International Security Adviser to the Conservative Party until 2008
On King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia’s last state visit, an enterprising serviceman in the Welsh Guards played the Star Wars Imperial March as the monarch got down from his official Bentley to meet the Queen.
Normally, such official visits spur speechwriters to draw upon all their reserves of flummery to praise a relationship based on the shared values of two peoples, joint struggles for democracy (even visiting Russian dignitaries find at least a favourable reference made to the shared fight against Nazi Germany) and perhaps international co-operation to promote women’s rights or deal with climate change.
When Saudi dignitaries come, diplomats wisely avoid anything of the sort. There’s not a regime in the world with which Britain, or indeed any other civilised country, shares fewer values. Riyadh is still the capital of an absolute, gerontocratic monarchy in which women aren’t allowed drive, and the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice keeps its beady eyes open for the numerous sinners for which the Wahhabi form of Islam provides.
Those caught violating the especially hardline form of Sharia law that the Committee enforces are dealt with harshly; executions still take the form of public beheadings; school textbooks depict Christians and Jews as apes and swine. Compare Saudi Arabia even to Iran, where women can hold political office, vote in (admittedly rigged) elections and compose a majority of all university graduates, and in which Jews, though persecuted, are at least recognised as officially existing.
In order to consolidate its power, the ruling al-Saud dynasty destroyed the sophisticated and cosmopolitan culture of pre-Wahhabi Arabia (good Cromwellians that they are, they even ban the celebration of the birthday of the prophet Mohammed). Mai Yamani’s Cradle of Islam poignantly reconstructs the lost, outward-looking culture of the Hejaz, when Mecca and Medina hosted a mercantile, cosmopolitan, Islam that the Wahhabis have now very much pushed onto the back foot.
Faced with this dismal record, diplomats wisely limit talk to “shared interests.” But do we actually share interests with the kingdom any more? During the Cold War, it was certainly vital to prevent oil reserves that large falling into the Soviet sphere. It might then have been necessary to acquiesce in the propagation of its obnoxious ideology.
But after 1989, that rationale disappeared. It was replaced by its alleged role in the fight against terrorism, a subject on which Saudi Arabia has so much to offer that its people have long helped both sides. Its role in supporting the jihad in Afghanistan is well known. Together with Zia-ul-Haq, at the time in charge of Pakistan, such Saudis as Osama bin Laden tilted the political balance of anti-Soviet forces towards the fundamentalism, which eventually spawned the Taliban. Up to 1500 Saudi young men are thought to have fought in Iraq. In Syria, Riyadh claims to support the “moderate” rebels, but moderation and extremism are relative terms: their definitions, I rather suspect, differ from ours.
There remains the matter of oil. In 1974, the Arab oil boycott produced petrol queues all around the West but, as it turned out, that was the moment of maximum middle eastern oil power. Since then, oil has become less important for Western economies; new sources of production have opened up (though Britain’s part of the North Sea is running down, there’s plenty more in Norway, Canada, Brazil and Angola) and because prices have risen so much since then, Saudi Arabia’s extremely low cost of production doesn’t dictate the price of crude.
Nor is the oil price a matter of bilateral diplomacy any more. Saudi Arabia feeds into the global oil market just like Kuwait, Venezuela and the U.S, and sells to China and India as much as it does to Europe. Much worse, from its point of view, is that it has become dependent on continued high prices to support the quickly growing population that its palaeolithic sexism produces. The kingdom can no longer use oil as leverage without harming their other trading partners or themselves.
So when Saudi Arabia announced that it wouldn’t take up the seat on the Security Council its diplomats had spent so long campaigning for, ostensibly due to a fit of pique about Western pusillanimity over Syria, the proper reaction should be to celebrate. It has denied itself a chance for global diplomatic influence, and that can only be a good thing. Its usefulness as a dumping ground for surplus Eurofighters is far outweighed by the damage it can do elsewhere. It’s time to “pivot,” as the diplomatic jargon has it, away from Saudi.