The most reprehensible and hypocritical aspect of UK-Saudi relations is Britain turning a blind eye to the flagrant violation of human rights in the Kingdom and the complicity in Riyadh’s war crimes in Yemen.
Lengthy jail terms for dissidents trying to express their freedom of thought and expression, harassment of human rights defenders and death penalties after unfair trials are common in Saudi Arabia. But London remains mum and maintains strong military and economic ties with Riyadh despite the abysmal human rights record.
Around two years after the UK sanctioned 19 Saudis for Khashoggi’s murder, then-prime minister Boris Johnson landed in the Kingdom in March 2022.
One week before Johnson’s visit, Saudi Arabia had executed 81 men, including citizens and foreign nationals, in the biggest mass execution in recent decades.
Johnson brazenly lied that “things are changing in Saudi Arabia”. Clearly, Johnson’s mission was oil after the Ukraine-Russia War.
Britain’s infinite sympathy for Ukrainians targeted by Russian missiles, rockets, bombs, jets and attack choppers while silent on Yemenis slaughtered by Saudis using British arms and ammunition is repugnant.
In May 2022, Johnson promised Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky to “do everything to support Ukraine’s brave fight against Russia’s brutal and unprovoked invasion”. “It is because of President Zelensky’s resolute leadership and the invincible heroism and courage of the Ukrainian people that Putin’s monstrous aims are being thwarted,” he said during his meeting with the President in Kyiv.
One year later, Britain’s sympathy and outpouring of grief for Ukrainians continues. Before departing for the NATO summit in Vilnius, Lithuania, Johnson’s successor Rishi Sunak said that “we are with Ukraine for as long as it takes” even if the war drags on for another decade.
The massive disparity in British aid to Yemen and Ukraine highlights its hypocrisy. According to UK Parliament documents, Britain has provided more than £1 billion in aid to Yemen since 2015 with the assistance falling from a peak of £260 million in 2019 to £114 million in 2021. The aid was further reduced to £88 in 2022-23 and 2023-24.
A November 2021 UNDP report had projected Yemen’s death toll will reach 377,000 by 2021-end with 70 percent of casualties among children under five.
According to the UN, 4.5 million people (one in seven) have been displaced while 24.1 million people (80 percent of the population) need humanitarian aid and protection.
According to UNICEF, more than 11,000 children have been killed or wounded as a direct result of the fighting since 2015. More than 23.4 million people, including 12.9 million children, need humanitarian assistance and protection, and 4,300,00 have been internally displaced.
On the other hand, the UK is the second largest military donor to Ukraine at £4.6 billion since the war started—£2.3 billion each in 2022 and 2023.
The UK has also provided £347 million in humanitarian assistance to Ukraine since the invasion.
The UK’s Arms sales to Saudi Arabia have fetched billions of pounds over decades. Britain started arming Saudis under the Al Yamamah series of arms deals in the 1980s with Margaret Thatcher at the helm.
In the biggest weapons deal worth £43 billion between 1985 and ‘93 till date, Riyadh was supplied with 50 Hawks, 48 Tornado IDS, 102 Sea Eagle anti-ship missiles, 24 Tornado ADV, 560 Skyflash BVRAAM missiles for Tornados, 250 Alarm missiles. The deal was followed by another major pact called Al Salam in 2003.
London temporarily banned arms sales in June 2019 over Riyadh’s human rights violation during the Yemen invasion only to resume it in July 2020.
The published value of UK arms licensed for export to the Saudi-led coalition since the Yemen war is £9.7 billion (including £8.2 billion to Saudi Arabia alone). However, the Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) estimates that the real value of the arms at almost £27 billion and the value of sales to the coalition is more than £28 billion.
According to British arms, security and aerospace company BAE Systems’ annual reports, it received £22.4 billion in revenues from the Kingdom in 2015-2022.
Trade and oil:
In 26 years (1995 to 2021), Saudi exports to the UK increased from $908 million to $2.18 billion.
UK Department of Business and Trade data show exports plus imports between the two nations increased by 68.5 percent from the four quarters to the end of Q4 2021 to £17.3 billion in the four quarters to the end of Q4 2022—total UK exports amounted to £12.2 billion, an increase of 51.7 percent, and imports were worth £5.1 billion, or 129.1 per cent rise.
According to the latest figures, British exports of goods to Saudi Arabia jumped by 32.8 per cent in the 12 months to April 2023 compared to the same period in 2022. UK imports of Saudi goods increased by 123 per cent.
The UK’s dependence of oil from authoritarian regimes has galloped since the Ukraine war with Saudi Arabia accounting for fossil fuel imports worth £3.4 billion out of the total value of £19.3 billion in 2022.
Out of the top five goods imported from Saudi Arabia in the four quarters to the end of Q4 2022, 33R refined oil had 70.7 per cent share.
However, the UK could face oil supply issues. According to the International Energy Agency, global oil demand will grow by 2.4 million barrels/day (mb/d) in 2023 to 102.3 mb/d in 2024 while OPEC+ slashes production by 200 thousand b/d as production curbs are carried through the year.
OPEC produced an estimated 28.7 mb/d of crude oil in 2022, which was 38 per cent of global oil production—Saudi Arabia, the largest producer and most influential member of the bloc, produced 10.4 mb/d. While OPEC+ produced 16.5 mb/d last year, around 40 percent of the world’s crude.
Riyadh is the most powerful member of the GCC, and Britain wants to leverage the country’s dominance. This explains why the UK wants to cement its ties with MBS. A fourth round of talks to sign a deal is underway in London.
According to the British government, the GCC is the UK’s seventh largest export partner with bilateral trade reaching a record £61.3 billion last year.
“The GCC economies are undergoing a period of rapid economic change and their collective GDP is expected to double by 2050. GCC demand for international products and services is booming and is expected to grow to almost £1 trillion by 2035,” the government said in its response to the International Trade Committee’s seventh report on an FTA with the GCC in June.
“A deal with the GCC would increase trade by, at least, 16% adding, £1.6 billion a year to the British economy and contribute an additional £600 million or more to UK wages.”
Sunak doesn’t want to miss the opportunity of boosting trade with the GCC and increasing jobs.
UK exported goods worth £23.1 billion to the GCC in 2020. An FTA could boost annual wages of workers by almost £0.6 billion-£1.1 billion, increase UK’s GDP by around £1.6 billion to £3.1 billion and boost trade by around £8.6 billion to £15.8 billion in 2035.
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