Saudi Arabia: why Boris Johnson not getting an instant deal is down to history

The Conversation

The spiking oil price has turned attention, as ever, to Saudi Arabia. The state has long enjoyed a deserved reputation as the industry’s key player because of its ability to quickly turn on the taps to pump extra oil onto an overheating market to bring the price down.

Despite the March 2022 visit of British prime minister Boris Johnson, Saudi Arabia (and the UAE) refused to undertake such a role in recent weeks. Partly, they are content, at least in the short-term, with a per barrel price of over US$100 (£76), and they also do not want to so visibly undercut Russia.

In a geopolitical arena where they feel keenly that the US is ever less interested in them and their region, they do not want to so obviously join the western-led coalition’s actions against Russia, despite not being especially close allies with Vladimir Putin.

In this context, Johnson’s visit was never likely to pay immediate dividends. The relationship between Britain and Saudi Arabia has been one of strained, but deeply interwoven, engagement since its inception.

All British prime ministers since Margaret Thatcher visited Saudi Arabia such is the enduring importance of this bilateral relationship to successive British leaders. Despite such unusual levels of elite engagement, it is often difficult to see how the UK government exerts influence over Saudi counterparts.

However, officials tend to suggest that informal and off-the-record influence remains. Whatever the reality, a British prime minister neither has the influence nor ability to dissuade Saudi leaders from undertaking a policy they feel strongly in their best interests.

British regional significance

The foundation of British-Saudi relations was not auspicious. The modern Saudi state was founded between 1902 and 1932 after Abdulaziz Al Saud – or Ibn Saud, as he is known – fought to reconquer ancestral lands. At the time, Britain enjoyed the preeminent position in the region.

Both were strong in their ways. Britain controlled the seaways and had made treaties with influential allies to the north, east and south of Saudi Arabian territory at the time, including Sharif Hussein bin Ali, who ruled over Mecca, Medina and the Hijaz. But Ibn Saud increasingly had significant control in the Arabian peninsula’s hinterland.

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Initial friendly treaties were signed in 1915. However, mutual trepidation increased as Ibn Saud’s power grew and his forces nibbled at British-protected territories in modern-day Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Qatar, the UAE, and Oman. Ultimately, a modus vivendi was reached with each broadly respecting the other, but no close bond was forged.

Subsequently, when seeking international assistance with the founding of the state oil industry, Ibn Saud preferred to strike close relations with the US rather than the UK. Though the UK and its companies enjoyed significant access to and influence on the nascent oil industries elsewhere on the Arabian peninsula and Iran, it was a blow to UK aspirations to lose control and influence to such a critical state.

Yet though the US was now preeminent, the UK still undertook significant piecemeal projects in Saudi Arabia. From the 1960s onwards, the UK played a significant role founding, reorganising, and training the Saudi Arabian National Guard, a “fourth force” in the kingdom designed to balance against the Saudi armed forces.

Similarly, after difficulties emerged within US-Saudi relations, mostly over US congressional obstruction of defence sales due to concerns about Israel’s qualitative military edge, another opportunity opened up for the UK.

In the 1980s, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher drove through the vast Al Yamamah arms deal. As well as being unprecedented in scope, involving an array of equipment sales, and in financial scale, it became one of the most notorious deals in British history.

Various fraud and corruption investigations ensued, forcing the UK government to invoke security clauses to protect what was, Prime Minister Tony Blair insisted, the national interest. Al Yamamah II continues today, making Saudi Arabia a uniquely important customer for UK defence firm BAE Systems and, in turn, the UK government.

Creating arms deals

From the earliest days through to today, the UK-Saudi relationship has been unusually balanced. Initially, although the UK was nominally the “great” power, it fast losing potency while Saudi Arabia was rising in prominence. Afterwards, as everywhere in the Gulf, the UK was fighting for trade deals amid an ever-expanding roster of competitors.

The UK enjoyed certain advantages. With an advanced technological base and a highly professionalised military, the UK retained an ability to be globally competitive in the arms industry. Long experience in the Gulf region arguably gave it a unique edge, at least on some occasions, as with the UK’s role as Saudi Arabia’s second most important trainer and arms supplier.

As such, the UK has a preeminent role in significant segments of the Saudi security architecture, automatically bequeathing strong links with the elite. This gives the UK a status and place only matched by the US in terms of space, opportunity and relational base to engage with Saudi counterparts. What the UK does with this role remains the enduring question and, indeed, the central controversial issue in the whole UK-Saudi relationship.

Set against this background and the broader backdrop of the UK-Saudi relationship, it is hardly surprising that the current British prime minister could not persuade Saudi (or Emirati) leaders to change policy. Indeed, to expect him – or any foreign leader – to induce a change at this stage in Saudi’s approach to the Russian-Ukraine situation is to misunderstand how and why leaders came to these conclusions in the first place.

It is also to misunderstand the nature of the UK-Saudi relationship. Leaders in London seldom enjoyed any commanding position over their Saudi counterparts.

Today, some may reasonably argue that, by contrast, Saudi leaders enjoy the whip hand. This may be overselling the case. Either way, it remains an enduring issue that UK governments fail to articulate clearly (or for many, persuasively) the benefits of UK engagement to the British public.

David B Roberts does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.