The multiplying allegations about high-level Saudi involvement in the abduction or murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi is placing an unprecedented strain on the close security and trade relationship between the UK and Saudi Arabia. British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt has in the past been willing to defend the relationship.
The red-carpet welcome for Mohamed bin Salman on his three-day visit to London in March was based on that longstanding relationship but also fortified by the hope that the crown prince was a reforming figure. The visit led to 13 memorandums of understanding and the promise of £65bn of investment in the UK over the next decade.
Privately, British diplomats have never harboured any illusions about Salman’s social reforms. But in aiming to diversify the Saudi economy through his Vision 2030 plan, the crown prince was at least giving post-Brexit Britain the chance to extend the relationship beyond military hardware into construction, transport and education.
The Khashoggi episode threatens to make that idea less attractive and, incidentally, render the millions spent by Saudis on Western PR agents largely wasted.
For the UK, in the middle of a demarche over extra-jurisdictional attempted killings by Russia in Salisbury, to turn a blind eye to reports alleging such a brutal act would be perceived as high hypocrisy.
The Foreign Office has had its differences with the Saudis over the Iran nuclear deal but knows how little Saudi Arabia welcomes direct criticism. A single tweet in August by Global Affairs Canada, calling for the release of a female rights protester, led to the recall of the Saudi ambassador, 8,300 Saudi graduates being withdrawn from the country, a freeze on investment and the cancellation of all flights from Saudi to Canada.
The big question is whether the Khashoggi episode will prompt a wider rethink about the value of the Saudi relationship to the UK. A recent external study has urged the UK to rethink the relationship’s value. The Policy Institute at Kings College argues that the overall value of the Saudi Arabia relationship is vastly overstated.
“UK trade exports in goods and services to Saudi Arabia totalled £6.2bn in 2016, but this represents a mere 1% of the UK’s total export value in 2016, which amounted to £547bn. Imports from Saudi Arabia account for 0.3% of all of those into the UK, or £2bn out of a total of £590bn in 2016. Arms sales constitute 0.004% of total revenue to the Treasury in 2016,” it said.
Britain may yet be able to avert a rethink if the evidence of Saudi government involvement just falls short of overwhelming. A FBI investigation proposed by the US might sow enough doubt.
Prime Minister Theresa May’s self-declared task for “Global Britain” has been set high: “To defend the rules-based international order against irresponsible states that seek to erode it.” Global Britain is facing a first and exacting test.
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