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The ebb and flow of British-Saudi relations

“Over the past few weeks, there has been an alarming change in the way Saudi Arabia is discussed in Britain. The Kingdom has always had to deal with a lack of understanding and misconceptions, but on this occasion I feel compelled to address some of the recent criticisms,” wrote Saudi ambassador to London Prince Mohammed bin Nawaf bin Abdulaziz in the Telegraph newspaper this week. In a strongly-worded rebuke of the UK’s policy towards his home country, he went on to warn of “potentially serious repercussions that could damage the mutually beneficial strategic partnership that our countries have so long enjoyed.”

The context for this intervention was, indeed, an increasingly critical tone in British media coverage and political rhetoric regarding Saudi Arabia, triggered by two key recent events. The first was the furore over a British bid for a £5.9m six-month contract to design a training programme for Saudi prison officers. Part of the plan of the previous Justice Secretary Chris Grayling to sell British expertise in prisons and probation around the world, the bid was openly criticised by Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn in his party conference speech earlier this month. There was reportedly considerable disagreement over the issue within the cabinet, with David Cameron and Foreign Secretary Phillip Hammond keen to keep the bid but the new Justice Secretary Michael Gove keen to drop it, given several high profile cases of brutal punishments such as lashes, beheadings, and crucifixions handed out by the Saudi authorities. Eventually, Gove won out, and the bid was dropped on 13 October.

The second major issue was the imprisonment of Karl Andree, a 74-year-old British man who has lived and worked in Saudi Arabia for over 20 years. He was sentenced by a Saudi court to 360 lashes for transporting homemade wine in his car. Andree’s children, who live in the UK, gave heartfelt statements to the press about their father’s ill-health. Coming after widespread international outrage over the public flogging meted out to Saudi blogger Raif Badawi, the Andree case was an easily relatable issue for the British public. On the same day it was announced that the prison contract had been dropped, it emerged that Cameron had personally written to King Salman to urge leniency in the case.

This week, Hammond travelled to Riyadh. He said the trip was long-planned, and was not in response to recent tensions. Soon after arriving, he announced that he had secured Andree’s release, which will no doubt prompt a sigh of relief in Westminster. Talking to the BBC about Britain’s relationship with the Saudis, Hammond said: “We have a very open frank relationship, based on a very strong relationship in areas of trade, defence and security collaboration that allows us to talk about areas of concern, perhaps sensitive issues.”

The news of Andree’s release certainly takes the immediate pressure off, but whatever Hammond says, there is no doubt that Saudi-British relationships remain strained. The Telegraph newspaper reported this week that Cameron is launching a “secret diplomatic offensive” after fears that the Saudi ambassador planned to leave London. The prince’s comment piece certainly indicated strong feelings, warning that “to further our shared strategic interests in the years ahead as we confront a variety of threats, it is crucial that Saudi Arabia be treated with the respect it has unwaveringly afforded the United Kingdom.”

Of course, the British government has no desire to see a full-scale diplomatic breakdown. Saudi Arabia is Britain’s biggest market in the Middle East, a trade relationship that includes arms deals worth billions of pounds. BAE Systems warned earlier this year that it would cut jobs and close facilities if Saudi Arabia does not place a new order. As well as being a major trading partner, Saudi Arabia is seen as a vital partner in the War on Terror – as the ambassador pointed out in his angry Telegraph editorial. Britain would go to great lengths to avoid any scaling down of the intelligence sharing agreement it currently hold with the Saudi authorities. Saudi leaders are currently at the centre of a diplomatic push to resolve the Syrian crisis, with both Russia and the US seeking the Kingdom’s support.

The relationship between Britain and Saudi Arabia has often been strained by anxiety in Britain about how to balance human rights concerns with the maintenance of this relationship. This is not the first time, and nor will it be the last that the relationship is placed under scrutiny – it is perhaps inevitable, given the vast gap in value systems governing the two countries, that these tensions will occasionally surface. Thus far, strategic and trade concerns have always trumped worries about human rights. There is no reason to believe that this time will be any different.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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