EconoMatters, Global HotSpots

UK: Aimlessly Aiding and Abetting Saudi Arabia?

New report questions Saudi Arabia’s utility for Britain.

Credit: Visit Britain www.flickr.com

Takeaways


  • A report by King’s College London and the Oxford Research Group questions Saudi Arabia’s utility for Britain.
  • The Kings College/Oxford Research Group report concluded that Britain enjoys limited economic benefit from its relationship with Saudi Arabia while suffering considerable reputational damage.
  • There is little evidence that the UK exerts either influence or leverage over Saudi Arabia. In fact, there is greater evidence that Saudi Arabia exerts influence over the UK.
  • The report’s call on the British government to critically analyse its foreign policy and be more selective and transparent in its engagement with Saudi Arabia could constitute an approach that would appeal to other European governments.

Although focused on British-Saudi economic and political relations, the report by King’s College London and the Oxford Research Group is significant.

It calls into question not only British, but also by implication long-standing Western willingness to turn a blind eye to the kingdom’s violations of human rights and its conduct of the Yemen war that has produced one of the worst humanitarian crises in post-World War Two history.

Witness, for example, this week’s cancellation by Spain of the sale of 400 laser-guided precision bombs. This suggests that Saudi Arabia is finding it more difficult to keep domestic dissent and international criticism under wraps. Spain follows in the footsteps of Germany, Norway, the Netherlands and Belgium who have suspended some military sales.

The Spanish cancellation came on the heels of last month’s Saudi-Canadian spat when Ottawa called on Saudi Arabia to release detained women activists.

UK: No gain from pleasing the Saudis

Applying a cost-benefit analysis, the Kings College/Oxford Research Group report concluded that Britain enjoys limited economic benefit from its relationship with Saudi Arabia while suffering considerable reputational damage.

This runs counter to the position of the government of Prime Minister Theresa May and popular perception.

The report noted that Britain’s $8 billion in exports to Saudi Arabia accounted for a mere 1% of total exports in 2016. Furthermore, the British Treasury reaped $38.5 million in revenues from arms sales — or a paltry 0.004% of the Treasury’s total income in 2016.

This analysis validates the conclusion of a 2016 study by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) and Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) that “arms exports cannot be said to represent an important part of the UK economy, and even less so of the labor market, despite the prominence of the ‘jobs argument’ among politicians and industry figures seeking to promote and defend arms exports.”

The King’s College/Oxford Research report also took issue with assertions by successive British governments that trade and weapons sales as well as support for Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s reform program enable Britain to influence Saudi policy and introduce democratic and human rights values. According to the report:

There is little evidence, based on publicly available information, that the UK exerts either influence or leverage over Saudi Arabia. In fact, there is greater evidence that Saudi Arabia exerts influence over the UK. There is a contradiction between the UK presenting itself as a progressive, liberal country and defender of the international rules-based order, while at the same time providing diplomatic cover for a regime, which, based on our analysis, is undermining that rules-based order

It warned that “the UK appears to be incurring reputational costs as a result of its relationship with Saudi Arabia, while the economic benefits to the UK are questionable.”

Transparency needed

The report’s call on the British government to critically analyse its foreign policy and be more selective and transparent in its engagement with Saudi Arabia could constitute an approach that would appeal to other European governments.

It could also attract support from some members of the U.S. Congress. Despite President Donald J. Trump’s backing of Saudi policies, public criticism of the kingdom is mounting in the United States.

Saudi Arabia “is a case study in what happens when a country’s supposed economic interests come into conflict with its stated norms and values and its international obligations. The situation cannot carry on indefinitely,” said Armida van Rij, one of the report’s authors.

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About James M. Dorsey

James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies and an award-winning journalist. [Singapore]

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