It’s Complicated: Britain, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain

November 25, 2013

Last week the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee put out the report on their investigation into UK relations with Saudi Arabia and Bahrain.  The full report is here and the summary is here.

Three comments

  1. The relationship with the Gulf sets out the tensions within British foreign policy in a pretty spectacular way.  On one hand the British relationship goes back centuries and is embedded in a nexus of royalty, arms sales and oil.  On the other hand from a liberal perspective Saudi Arabia is one of the worst places in the world.  These poles are overlaid with concerns about terrorism and the Sunni and anti-Iranian direction of Saudi foreign policy. This is illustrated by how much of the report is draws on evidence from retired ambassadors and how much from human rights groups.
  2. The report does a good job of setting out the multiplex nature of international relationships.  Particularly with Saudi Arabia there are multiple strands to the relationship that make applying leverage on one of them hard.
  3. Then there’s the public diplomacy dimension.  What polling there is suggests a pretty negative attitude to the UK in Saudi Arabia with a net negative trust in ‘the British people’ of -10% and for the British Government of -34%, other polls suggest that Britain is seen more negatively than France and Germany and only slightly more positively than the US (32 vs 30%).  Of course as the report points out that British people have a pretty negative attitude to Saudi Arabia.   There’s a glass half full moment where the British Council says that participating in its cultural relations activities manages to improve things.* The report demands greater public engagement.  I would add though that there’s an issue that needs to be thought through – why are the ratings so low?  They are much worse than even for Pakistan or Turkey.  British public view of  of Saudi Arabia rests on a view of the place as quite alien – which of course it is – does this work in the other direction too?

*The report manages to confuse two diagrams taken from this British Council report (p.12), the BC report says that people in Saudi Arabia who have participated in any BC activities have a +2% trust rating and for those who participated in two or more activities the rating goes up to +12%.




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