Pragmatism, not principle, defines relationship with regime seen as crucial ally in Middle East

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Indy Politics

From Margaret Thatcher onwards, prime ministers have been in no doubt about Saudi Arabia's crucial importance to the UK government. Over the years a policy of pragmatism has come to characterise all dealings between London and Riyadh.

British leaders have been prepared to live with the poor record on human rights abuses and the treatment of women by the Saudis because of what has been regarded as this country's strategic and economic interests. Saudi Arabia, historically a close ally of the UK, is Britain's largest export market in the region, buying goods and services worth more than £3.5bn annually.

British financial interests in joint ventures in the desert kingdom are estimated to be worth £7bn, with HSBC, Shell and BAE Systems among recent investors.

Some 20,000 Britons work in Saudi Arabia and countless thousands more in this country directly rely on Saudi orders for their living. In the world of realpolitik, there is a further argument for the Government in staying on good terms with the country that produces more than one-eighth of the world's oil.

The dilemma facing Government ministers, who 10 years ago promised to introduce an "ethical dimension" into foreign policy, was thrown into dramatic relief when Tony Blair controversially abandoned a long- running fraud investigation into the £40bn Al-Yamamah BAE arms deal between the two countries. An unrepentant Mr Blair said that pressing ahead with the inquiry would have been "devastating for our relationship with an important country with whom we co-operate closely on terrorism, on security, on the Middle East peace process"

He added: "That is leaving aside the thousands of jobs which would have been lost, which is not the consideration in this case, but I just point it out."

Given that Osama bin Laden and most of the September 11 co-conspirators were Saudi-born, the Government also regards the Saudi government as a bulwark against the spread of al-Qa'ida's influence in the region. They point out that the Saudis have suffered a series of devastating terror attacks on their own soil. The nightmare scenario is that the Saudi royals, who enraged some of their neighbours by allowing American jets to be stationed in the country during the first Gulf war, are toppled and replaced by vitriolic anti-western extremists.

Meanwhile, ministers say they have secured the Saudi support for the Iraqi unity government and share Britain's concerns over Iran's nuclear aspirations. They also argue that the Saudis are a valuable partner in the search for a political solution to the instability in Lebanon. As a result, members of the Royal family and Government ministers are constantly flying to Saudi Arabia, a familiarity that helps them to stay on the best of terms with their opposite numbers.

During 2005, for example, eight ministers visited, including Mr Brown, John Reid (twice) and Mr Blair (twice) as well as the Prince of Wales and the Duke of York. The Government insists it does not turn a blind eye to the human rights abuses of the Saudi regime and raises them at every suitable opportunity. But sceptics counter that any criticism is inevitably sotto voce as realism kicks in.

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