Those reading this will know there is nothing new or revolutionary about the need for pragmatic foreign policy that protects the vital interests of the state. This is an idea however that last week’s column in this space by Garvan Walshe – “Without interests or values to share, why should we care about Saudi Arabia?” – does not seem to accept.
The article seeks to promote a pivot away from Saudi Arabia based on the belief that Britain does not have any common ideas or interests with it. While Walshe cites a lack of the strategic importance of the relationship, it is used only as a device to justify the agenda that the UK should not support what it perceives to be a negative society. We live in a multi-cultural world, with many different religious, customs, and social and moral values. Any successful foreign policy undertaken by us has to account for this variation. I believe that Walshe’s analysis of the importance of Anglo-Saudi relationship from a geo-political perspective is incorrect: our continued cooperation is indispensible to the security and commercial interests of Britain. To turn away from a society which he believes to be negative would surely have adverse consequences for Britain.
Walshe’s article believes the shared interests between the UK and Saudi is a fallacy. On terrorism, the article claims that Saudi Arabia “has helped both sides” citing Afghanistan, Iraq, and Osama Bin Laden in support. However given the fact that those which he mentions are not sponsored by the Saudi leadership and represent less than one percent of Saudi’s worldwide, the article’s accusation is misleading and inaccurate. In combating terrorism alongside Britain, Saudi Arabia has been a force for good in the Middle East which in turn helps keep us safe at home: we regularly exchange intelligence and detection expertise, while Saudi authorities have actively hunted down terrorist cells on its fringes using British supplied equipment.
This was best exemplified in 2010 when the Saudis tipped off British authorities to explosive devices on cargo planes at East Midlands Airport. As the custodian of the two holy mosques, Saudi Arabia plays an important role in promoting non-violent Islam. Saudi Arabia is also home to the Care Rehabilitation Centre whose successful programme to re-integrate jihadists back into society has become a model for the rest of the region. Saudi Arabia doesn’t promote terrorism – it stifles it at every turn before it can reach the UK causing considerable damage to our cities and significant loss of life.
On oil, Saudi Arabia may not contribute as much to the UK’s annual imports as previously did, but the UK must stay close to Saudi Arabia for exactly the reason Mr Walshe’s article mentions: Saudi Arabian oil feeds into the global oil market. The Middle East is home to 56 percent of the world’s oil reserves; Saudi Arabia has the second largest reserve and is only just behind Russia in daily oil production. Saudi’s role in the oil market is therefore pivotal; any disruption in oil production in Saudi Arabia would dramatically raise global oil prices, heralding negative consequences for the UK economy and the recovery.
Currently, the threat of disruption comes mainly from Iran through any limited or regional conflict there. Although there has been some progress with Tehran on the Iranian nuclear programme, past experience has shown that discussions can easily break down. It would be unwise to hastily withdraw our diplomatic support and our cooperation in matters of security from Saudi Arabia as it has always served as a dependable and capable counterbalance to Iranian influence in the region. Saudi policies have a great impact on the region as a whole, putting significant political pressure on Iran. The Saudis have also taken steps to limit Iran’s ability to threaten the world markets through actions such as the building of oil pipelines to bypass the strategically important Strait of Hormuz. Mr Walshe’s article unfortunately fails to recognise this important role Saudi Arabia plays, particularly in the context of Britain’s safety and our commercial interests.
Human Rights are still however of great concern to us in Britain and we have rightly encouraged our Saudi friends to widen their reform programme – particularly in the area of women’s rights – whilst carefully observing the kingdom’s very unique political culture and history. In the past decade. however, the role of women in Saudi society has evolved rapidly, among the most significant developments was the appointment of the first female members of the Majlis al Shura, two of whom I had the privilege of meeting earlier this year. In addition to holding political office, women are managing private businesses. 57 percent of all university students in Saudi Arabia are women, on a par with the United States, and 70 per cent of savings deposits in banks belong to women. While indeed there is much more work to be done, the Saudis recognise this and have pressed ahead with reforms at a pace which is acceptable to Saudi society.
It is a state’s role to look first and foremost to its interests, not significantly to interfere within the domestic affairs of another sovereign nation. So when Walshe says we should pivot away from Saudi Arabia, we must analyse the costs of doing so, and whether it would ultimately be in the British interest. We would be withdrawing support from a key ally in the fight against terrorism and extremism in the Middle East, we would be putting at jeopardy our economic recovery and the overall strength of the UK economy, and we would be turning our backs to one of the best counterbalances to Iran that we have in the region. From my reading, pivoting away from the Saudis would be bad for Britain.