Michael Stephens is the Research Fellow for Middle East Studies at the Royal United Services Institute. Here, he writes exclusively for CMEC on Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's visit to London last week:
For three days London played host to Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS), for a trip which elicited far more public debate than is normal for a visiting foreign official. Though it may have felt like it, this was not a visit by a head of State. Boisterous conversations have surrounded the visit, with billboards and taxis welcoming him, and protestors and hostile advertising urging the UK not to do business with him. Debates in Parliament were similarly heated.
There are several reasons why Prince Mohammed’s visit has been afforded this level of attention. The image of rich Gulf royals sauntering into London to sign big trade deals and buy fighter jets harks back to the imperial age, a time that many Britons would rather leave behind. Saudi Arabia is not Switzerland -it is a land of conservative values and social practices that many Britons struggle to accept - yet Saudi Arabia maintains close working relations with the UK. This touches upon our core values as a nation, which forces us to ask whether the national interest should be shaped by Western values or practical interests. Nowhere is this more starkly expressed than in the closeness of Britain’s relationship with Saudi Arabia.
Underlying this is the fear that Britain’s foreign relations in the post-Brexit era will be shaped by a diminished concern for human rights and universal values in the face of a mercantilist foreign policy. The government was certainly keen to point out the benefits that Prince Mohammed’s visit will deliver- the promise of £65bn of investments and trade is, according to the Prime Minister, “a significant boost for UK prosperity and a clear demonstration of the strong international confidence in our economy as we prepare to leave the European Union.”
The Saudis have zeroed in on Brexit as an opening to build deeper links with Britain. In an interview with Bloomberg, and at a keynote speech at the Mansion House, Minister of Energy and Natural Resources Khalid al Falih linked the UK’s new position in the world to Saudi Arabia’s own changes, describing Brexit and Vision 2030 as pivotal moments in the history of the two Kingdoms. As Britain searches for new markets, Saudi Arabia provides an emerging destination for British business.
While duly acknowledging the impact of Brexit and MbS, we should also recognise that Britain had begun to markedly shift its policy toward the Gulf beforehand, signalling that it was searching for a deeper partnership with the region than one just based on defence sales.
The United Kingdom’s Gulf Strategy, signed into effect in 2015, placed emphasis on widening Britain’s diplomatic, economic and trading relationships with all the Gulf States. The idea was that the UK would play a far greater role in the Gulf not only in the coming years, but in the coming decades. It is of course expedient for the Prime Minister to reap the benefits of the UK’s Gulf Strategy, and to use it to help maintain Britain’s strength and prosperity after Brexit. Nonetheless, the decision to engage the Gulf was not motivated by Brexit, nor has its implementation necessarily been shaped by it.
So how has the trip gone? As well can be expected, and jokes about billboards aside, the relationship appears to have got off on the right foot. Arms sales to Saudi have often been a good indicator of the state of the underlying relationship between the two countries. Should it be the case that Saudi Arabia moves forward with the purchase of 48 Typhoon aircraft, this would be a strong signal that Prince Mohammed believes the UK is an important partner, both economically and in regional security terms for many decades to come.
London is also still in contention to secure a part of the Aramco IPO listing, which now looks to be coming in 2019. Clearly the Saudis have a lot of homework to do to lay solid foundations for the IPO and will pursue a listing at a time in which global energy and capital markets can produce a more favourable outcome than at present. This should be no cause for worry, because simply being part of the conversation about Aramco at this stage is extremely important. The fact that Saudi Ministers talked about it in London indicates the UK has a good chance to secure at least part of the listing.
With all this goodwill from Riyadh comes many questions, which need to be carefully scrutinised. Britain has closely associated itself with Prince Mohammed and his reform programme, which is ambitious and wide-ranging. However, if last year is anything to go by the Saudis have been a little too eager in trying to demonstrate their commitment to reform at the price of domestic stability. It is a policy which has backfired at times and caused investors to be nervous about doing business in Saudi Arabia, as well as raising questions about the motivations behind the reforms.
The Crown Prince has big ambitions, and the UK should support them, steering them in ways that are constructive for the country, and which recognise the concerns that rapid change can invoke. However, change made at any cost is not really change at all, and the big flashy ideas must solve Saudi Arabia’s societal problems, not create new ones.
Secondly, if the Typhoon sale goes ahead it will even more closely tie the UK to the ongoing war in Yemen. The UK legitimately argue that Saudi Arabia has genuine self defence concerns, but the war is a humanitarian catastrophe, for which Saudi Arabia must take its fair share of responsibility, and by association the UK must double its efforts to resolve the ongoing crisis. We cannot simply reap the benefits of the defence relationship, without doing what we can to ease the humanitarian crisis.
There are risks with this approach. If UK pressure on Saudi Arabia to ensure international humanitarian access and a speedy resolution to the conflict in Yemen proves unsuccessful, it will be a huge blow for those who argue that the UK’s close defence and security relationships with the Gulf States (and indeed other countries) give us leverage, and influence. This would have severe consequences for UK policy in the long term, associating the UK with controversial conflicts they have no control over.
Measuring British influence in an issue as complicated as Yemen is a difficult thing to do. And given that conditions for a Saudi victory involve the restoration of the Hadi government- a highly unlikely prospect – the war will continue for some time to come. Realistic benchmarks need to be set, such as a sharp decline in the levels of preventable disease, hunger, and civilian casualties this year. The government has worked hard to ensure continued access to Yemen’s ports, and that the delivery of humanitarian aid is as uninhibited as possible. This is to be commended, but far more needs to be done if Britain is to both preserve, and promote its influence as a crucial actor in regional security and stabilisation.
Communication with the Saudis on Yemen needs to be robust, the Prime Minister was forthright in her remarks to the Crown Prince about the ongoing problems in Yemen both during her recent visit to the kingdom and during his visit to London. Of no less importance was the repeated expression of her concern for human rights inside Saudi Arabia. These concerns should be an integral part of the UK’s engagement with Prince Mohammed, and not an afterthought. Securing the goodwill of the Crown Prince and his reform-minded team is one thing, but a commitment to delivering positive change should be at the forefront of UK policy towards the Kingdom.
There is a real opportunity to help Saudi Arabia move forward in a way that will benefit its citizens, and aid in its stability, whilst also securing a strong partnership in the region for decades to come. To do this the Kingdom to Kingdom relationship cannot revert to business as usual, relying on oil and defence to keep both sides ticking along while more difficult questions are ignored. A real opportunity exists to see genuine change, which the UK has indicated it wants to be a part of and it must now back up its words with actions.