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Shashank Joshi: A relationship with strategic – and business – motives


Many have suggested that as revolutionary spells go, last year was more 1848 than 1989 – a period of short-lived popular uprisings, quashed by reactionary forces. If that's true, then Saudi Arabia is playing the role of Tsarist Russia.

The desert kingdom mounted its own counter-revolution. It took advantage of buoyant oil prices to spend billions of dollars on social spending and dispatched a pan-Gulf force to quash Bahrain's uprising.

So it's more than a little awkward that Saudi Arabia – whose absolutist monarchy rules in concert with a puritanical clergy – also happens to be Britain's largest economic partner in the Middle East, with £15bn traded every year and £62bn of Saudi capital invested in the UK. David Cameron's interest in preserving good relations is, therefore, primarily mercantile. Between 2006 and 2010, Riyadh accounted for a fifth of all British arms exports.

But this trade has more than a commercial purpose. Saudi Arabia pressured Tony Blair into shutting a down an inquiry into alleged Saudi bribes paid to BAE, on pain of ending counter- terrorism co-operation. Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles, then Britain's ambassador to Riyadh, warned that "the threats to national and international security were very grave," such that "British lives on British streets would be at risk". The Cabinet Secretary wrote that Saudi Arabia was "a key partner in the fight against Islamic terrorism". After a wave of attacks between 2003 and 2006, Saudi Arabia has reversed its ambivalence to violent extremism.

The Government sees wider, strategic reasons to deepen the relationship. Like the United States, Britain is anxious about Iranian revanchism. The Iranian nuclear crisis has reached fever pitch, and the UK has led the unprecedented diplomatic pressure on Tehran. Iran, in turn, was accused last year of plotting to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the US. As long as Egypt remains weak and Iraq's Shia-led government is allied to Iran, it's the Sunni Arab powerhouse Saudi Arabia that is seen as the best counterweight to the ambitions of its rival – and best placed to pump out more oil in case Iranian supplies are disrupted.

The danger is that Saudi Arabia's stability comes at a price. The past year has shown that no state is immune. As David Cameron arrived, a protester was shot dead in the Eastern Province. It would be British arms and security forces trained by British personnel that would do much of the killing if a "Saudi Spring" ever did unfold.

Shashank Joshi is an associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute