How the UK and Saudi Arabia became strategic allies

Boris Johnson says Britain could ‘do more to defend Saudi’ after blaming Iran for oil bombings

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman
Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman
(Image credit: Fayez Nureldine/AFP/Getty Images)

The UK Government has joined the US in blaming Iran for last week’s devastating attacks on oil facilities in Saudi Arabia.

On Sunday, Prime Minister Boris Johnson told reporters that there was “a very high degree of probability” that Iran was behind the 14 September missile attack at the Abqaiq facility, owned by state-run oil firm Saudi Aramco. The attack wiped out 5.7 million barrels per day of crude oil output, or around 5% of the world’s supply, says Reuters.

Johnson’s assertion comes despite claims of responsibility for the attack from Houthi rebel groups in Yemen, against whom the Saudi government has waged a brutal war for more than five years, and there being no publicly released evidence of Iranian involvement.

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Nevertheless, Johnson appears to be backing the Trump administration, which is in the midst of a fierce war of words with Tehran over the attack.

The PM said that although he had not yet decided on an official response to what he sees as Iranian aggression, he suggested that the UK must “do more to defend Saudi” and hinted that the UK could join a US-led military effort to “de-escalate” the situation in Iran.

“We will be following that very closely and clearly, if we are asked, either by the Saudis or by the Americans, to have a role, then we will consider in what way we could be useful,” he told reporters, says The Independent.

Such a declaration by Johnson will not only likely please officials in Washington but also those in Riyadh, as it would signify a considerable improvement in UK-Saudi relations. But with its record of human rights abuses and links to terrrorism, how did Saudi Arabia become one of the UK’s strategic partners in the first place?

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The UK has a long history of relations with Saudi Arabia stretching back to the early 20th century, much of which was founded on military and arms deals.

According to the New Statesman, the UK “has been arming the House of Saud since the monarchy’s forces conquered the majority of the Arabian Peninsula in the 1920s”, fending off an early rebellion and establishing the Saudi kingdom.

The magazine adds that in the years since then, the US has become the Saudis’ primary Western protector, but the “UK’s role has remained pivotal”.

Both the UK and US see Saudi Arabia as a strategic ally in the Middle East because of its location and vast oil reserves, and since the 1960s the UK has supplied the Saudi kingdom with large quantities of military material.

But UK funding of Saudi military operations has come under increasing scrutiny since the outbreak of war in Yemen. Recent government figures show that since that conflict began in March 2015, UK export licences worth £6.2bn have been granted to members of the Saudi-led coalition, including £5.3bn to Saudi Arabia alone.

The New Statesman reports that as a result of this backing, British fighter jets “now comprise a significant proportion of the Royal Saudi Air Force”, and Britain now provides “services, components and ammunition necessary to keep the fleets operational.

“The Saudi war effort in Yemen effectively depends on British support,” it adds.


According to the British Council, the UK has designated Saudi Arabia as a “high-growth market”. London is one of the largest foreign investors in the kingdom and some 6,000 British companies export goods and services there.

Writing for The Conversation, Armida L. M. van Rij, a researcher in security and defence policy at the Policy Institute, King’s College London, notes that a frequently heard argument for engaging with “oppressive countries like Saudi Arabia” is that direct diplomatic engagement “enables the UK to export its values, such as respect for basic human rights and a belief in liberal democracy, to such places”.

But others have questioned the legitimacy of these strategic operations. First, Van Rij says that the “economic value of the relationship for the UK is negligible”, adding: “Goods and services sold to Saudi Arabia represented just 1% of the UK’s total exports in 2016, while it is estimated that arms sales bring in just £30m for the Treasury. In our research, we found that that came to just 0.004% of its total revenue in 2016.”

Furthermore, she says that the UK Government’s post-Brexit “Global Britain” agenda has “seen it emphasise the need to defend and uphold the international rules-based order” - something that is undermined by “tacit support for Saudi Arabia’s actions”.

And this has not gone unnoticed by activists in the UK. Ann Feltham, of the Campaign Against the Arms Trade (CAAT), said in The Guardian in 2013: “The problem is not that the UK government is failing to explain its approach to Saudi Arabia to the UK public; it is the approach itself that is the problem.

“The government needs to put human rights at the heart of its policy towards Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, not the interests of the arms companies. Otherwise it is a betrayal of those protesters who seek human rights and democratic freedoms.”

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