The UK's relations with Saudi Arabia and Bahrain - Foreign Affairs Committee Contents

Conclusions and recommendations

Broader context: UK ties with the Gulf

1.  The Gulf is a region that remains important to the UK's defence interests and offers substantial commercial opportunities. The UK has benefited from its historical links with the Gulf States, including with Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. The UK's long-standing relationships in the Gulf place it in a good position to extend and benefit from these ties in the coming years. (Paragraph 12)

2.  The UK is correct to prioritise its Gulf relations, which remain key to the UK's national interests. We are satisfied that the Gulf Initiative is being appreciated by the UK's partners in the Gulf. It is largely a re-branding exercise, but that does not invalidate its worth as a signal of the UK's commitment to the region. However, we find no conclusive proof of neglect by previous governments. (Paragraph 18)

3.  The Arab Spring in 2011 revealed some of the differences between the UK and the Gulf with regard to differing domestic governance systems and approach to the revolutions. The Government had to reassure its old allies in the Gulf of its reliability while simultaneously pressing them more urgently for change and reform. In this context, the Government's emphasis on gradual reform based on participation and consent is a realistic approach, though the Committee believes the FCO should continue to monitor the effectiveness of its policy closely. (Paragraph 26)

Bilateral relations with Saudi Arabia

4.  The UK-Saudi relationship continues to be important for the UK. We have no reason to suspect that the failure so far to establish a formal 'Strategic Partnership' indicates that the friendship between the UK and Saudi Arabia has suffered. It appears that practical reasons have prevented progress. However, we agree with the Government's original position that structured relations can provide a useful forum to enhance co-operation on common interests and to raise issues of concern, and the lapse of regular annual talks is therefore regrettable. The FCO should include the reinstatement of talks via a strategic partnership, or the reinstatement of the Two Kingdoms Dialogue, as a goal in its business plan and should continue to represent the benefits of such structured talks to the authorities in Saudi Arabia. (Paragraph 34)

5.  Evidence of negative perceptions of the UK among young Saudis is deeply concerning, particularly in a state in which over 60% of the population is under 30 years old. It is difficult with so little evidence to draw conclusions as to the reason for the low level of trust in the UK, but we recommend that the Government set out in response to this report any research it has conducted on the public perception of the UK in Saudi Arabia, and its views on the reasons for the poor public perception of the UK. (Paragraph 39)

6.  We recommend that the Government make public engagement with the wider Saudi population a priority for its digital diplomacy team in the Gulf and Embassy in Saudi Arabia. The Government should also set out in response to this report its public engagement strategy, including the steps it is taking to engage with Saudi youth on social media, how it is representing the UK to the younger generation in Saudi Arabia, and what staff and resources it is dedicating to this task. (Paragraph 44)

7.  The work of the British Council is particularly useful in Saudi Arabia as it is one of the only channels of direct contact between the UK and Saudi public. As a provider of valued language training services, it is able to co-operate with and support the Saudi authorities at the same time as engaging directly with the Saudi public and promoting a positive image of the UK. (Paragraph 45)

8.  The growing Saudi market and the Saudi government's spending plans offer huge opportunities for British businesses across a wide range of sectors. Given the large-scale opportunities available, we see no reason why the UK should not set ambitious targets for growth in UK-Saudi trade and investment. (Paragraph 56)

9.  We recommend that the Government facilitate a leading role for British businesses in international consortiums to bid for projects in Saudi Arabia. In its response to this report, the Government should set out what resources it is dedicating to this task. (Paragraph 57)

10.  We recommend that the Government assess whether it would be beneficial to lower the costs of its introduction services to British businesses for a temporary period in order to boost the UK's participation in the Saudi market, particularly for small and medium sized enterprises. (Paragraph 59)

11.  The current visa regime is a significant source of difficulty and inconvenience for both Saudi and British businessmen and undermines the UK Government's stated priority of increasing trade with Saudi Arabia. The improvement of the visa terms would be of benefit to both states and we are disappointed that the UK has not managed to secure reciprocal terms for its business visas. We recommend that the Government make improving the visa regime a priority in its discussions with the Saudi government when seeking to establish a strategic partnership. (Paragraph 62)

12.  Saudi Arabia is an important buyer for the UK defence industry, and defence sales are important to the overall UK-Saudi relationship. The UK provides valued training alongside its defence sales that is beneficial to both UK and Saudi forces. With other competitors in the market, there is little to suggest that ending the UK's defence sales would have any effect on overall defence sales to Saudi Arabia, or that it would give the UK additional leverage to effect positive improvements. The government must adhere strictly to its existing policy to ensure that defence equipment sold by UK firms are not used for human rights abuses or internal repression. In its response to this report the Government should provide further evidence that it is doing so in practice, including any evidence gathered by end-use monitoring. (Paragraph 78)

13.  Saudi Arabia continues to be a vital but complicated counter-terrorism partner for the UK and wider international community. Counter-terrorism co-operation has proven to be of great and practical benefit to both sides and has been instrumental in protecting British lives and interests. However, Saudi Arabia is part of the problem as well as part of the solution. We recommend that the Government make it a priority to engage with its counter-terrorism partners in Saudi Arabia to improve the monitoring of the funding flowing from Saudi Arabia to organisations with an extremist message so that it can be more effectively disrupted. The Government should also encourage Saudi Arabia to ensure that its legitimate promotion of religious values does not inadvertently contribute to the furtherance of extremism, especially with regard to states in North Africa that have been particularly vulnerable to the influence of extremist groups, as well as in states in other regions such as Pakistan, Bangladesh and Indonesia. (Paragraph 85)

14.  Given that the Saudi government does not acknowledge that torture is ever used by its officials, we would welcome further information on the safeguards the UK government has put in place to ensure that intelligence shared by Saudi Arabia does not result from torture. Counter-terrorism is an area in which Saudi authorities appear to be willing to be innovative and to co-operate with international partners. The UK should build on this co-operation to support improvements in standards and best practice. The British Embassy in Riyadh should pursue the chance offered by Saudi authorities to attend a counter-terrorism trial and the Government should update the Committee in its response to this report. (Paragraph 87)

15.  We were surprised and disappointed by Saudi Arabia's decision to reject a non-permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council. We believe that Saudi Arabia's concerns are best expressed from a position on the Council within the UN system. The Government should encourage its counterparts in Saudi Arabia to re-engage with the UN Security Council on these important regional issues. (Paragraph 92)

16.  Saudi Arabia is an important regional partner, which is taking an increasingly active international role. It shares many of the UK's goals in the region and it is important to work closely with Saudi Arabia on these shared outcomes. However, the government should be vigilant with regard to where Saudi Arabia's promotion of religious values may have a destabilising effect in the long-term, and must take steps with its international partners to discourage this policy, or to mitigate its effects. (Paragraph 96)

17.  Although there is a long way still to go in bringing stability to Yemen, this is a good example of UK-Saudi co-operation to try to bring stabilization and to promote development in a country that is key to Saudi Arabia's interests. As such, it could act as a model of high-profile and substantial British support for locally-led solutions to regional problems. (Paragraph 100)

18.  The UK and Saudi Arabia share immediate and critical concerns with regard to Iran's nuclear programme and its interference in states in the region. It will be important for the Government to work closely with Saudi Arabia on engaging with Iran as a more constructive regional player. Saudi Arabia provides vital support for international action via sanctions. Saudi Arabia's broader rivalry with Iran on ethnic and religious lines is a cause for concern, but the Saudi leadership has shown itself willing to act as a pragmatic and useful foreign policy partner in containing the Iranian threat to regional and international security. (Paragraph 104)

19.  Saudi Arabia has been a strong voice in the Gulf and Arab world in support of international action on Syria. The UK and Saudi Arabia share a deep concern about the conflict, a desire for a political solution, and the requirement for an international multilateral response. (Paragraph 108)

20.  We note the reported supply of arms by Saudi Arabia to groups in Syria; the Government should set out in its response to this report its assessment of the situation and the actions it is taking to monitor any groups that are receiving funding and arms from Saudi Arabia, and its efforts to engage with the Saudi authorities regarding any concerns about those groups. (Paragraph 109)

21.  Given the UK's close relationship with both Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, the Government should engage with Saudi Arabia on the UK's efforts to promote the reform process in Bahrain and an inclusive and substantive National Dialogue. (Paragraph 115)

22.  Despite some recent improvements, the human rights situation in Saudi Arabia remains very poor. The absence of civil and political rights and the use of extreme punishments with inadequate judicial safeguards remain of deep concern, as do the rights of women and minorities. We recognise and welcome the significant steps that have been taken toward improved rights and freedoms, particularly with regard to women's rights, but this has started from a very low base. (Paragraph 125)

23.  Although we recognise and are concerned about the poor human rights record in Saudi Arabia, we are unconvinced that constant and severe public criticism by the UK Government would result in anything other than disengagement by the Saudi side. This would achieve none of the UK's goals and could result in a worsening situation in Saudi Arabia. However, it is important that the UK maintain credibility at home and abroad with regard to its human rights work. (Paragraph 133)

24.  Democratic governments such as the UK face a challenge in trying to reconcile their liberal constituencies at home with the need to maintain relationships with undemocratic and conservative regimes that are important to our interests on a regional and global level. We understand that to encourage a Government such as that of Saudi Arabia toward reform, a combination of private and public pressure is required. By their very nature, private conversations are difficult to explain publicly. However, we are particularly concerned that some witnesses not only disagreed with UK policy but appeared to disbelieve the Government's account of its private conversations with Saudi Arabia on reform. The Government appears to have a credibility problem and must do more to explain its policies and consider where it can point to specific progress as a result of its human rights work. We recommend that the Government consider what confidence-building measures it could put in place, such as supporting access to Saudi Arabia for NGOs and journalists, and conduct a review of what information it is able to make available either to NGOs or in the public domain. (Paragraph 134)

25.  The UK is well-placed to provide legal and judicial reform assistance and we recommend that the government make this constructive contribution a focus of its human rights work with Saudi Arabia. Despite the considerable challenges, promising steps appear to have been taken toward providing constructive assistance but these must be converted into solid and reportable programmes. The UK should also encourage the development of Saudi Arabia's consultative systems, and we particularly welcome initiatives such as parliamentary exchanges in this regard. (Paragraph 135)

26.  The UN provides an important forum for constructive discussion of Saudi Arabia's progress and continuing challenges. Saudi Arabia's Universal Periodic Review is an opportunity for the UK to make clear its concerns about and support for progress on reform and human rights in Saudi Arabia. Following Saudi Arabia's Universal Periodic Review in October, the government should encourage Saudi Arabia to engage constructively with the United Nations. (Paragraph 138)

Bilateral relations with Bahrain

27.  The UK's two recent ambassadors to Bahrain have taken different approaches to their work in response to the situation in Bahrain at the time of their tenure. We commend the energy that both former Ambassador Jamie Bowden and current Ambassador Iain Lindsay have brought to this role in a difficult situation. (Paragraph 157)

28.  The aggressive manner in the way that the Bahraini security forces handled events in 2011 has deeply damaged Bahrain's international reputation, and complicated its relationships with Western governments, including the UK. Bahrain's failure quickly to implement the important and practical recommendations of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry has created further difficulties in its relationship with the UK, and has squandered the good faith and goodwill that the BICI could have helped to restore. (Paragraph 160)

29.  In our view the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry made sensible recommendations and the Bahrain government's failure to implement them fully is inexplicable. If it had done so, if would have been easier for the international community as a whole to engage with the Bahraini leadership. (Paragraph 161)

30.  The Government was correct to take a firm line in 2011 urging an end to the unacceptable violence and expressing its deep concern to the Bahraini authorities. The Government's efforts to re-establish close relations since 2011 appear to have been successful, and the UK is now well placed to help Bahrain as it shapes its future. The Government must, however, continue to monitor its policies in respect to Bahrain closely. (Paragraph 162)

31.  While criticism of the UK in Bahrain is not new, it is a cause of concern. The UK's high profile in Bahrain is an asset for the UK that can be used to influence and support Bahrain's reform, but it also makes British actions and statements a target for scrutiny and criticism. Given the detailed attention that statements and actions by the British Embassy receive, the UK must be extremely careful about the message it sends to the broader public in Bahrain and internationally as it positions itself as a "critical friend" to Bahrain. We conclude that the UK Government is correct to try to use its high profile and influence to good effect to support evolutionary reform in Bahrain and to act as a critical friend. (Paragraph 167)

32.  The British Council provides a valuable vehicle for the promotion of British values and the provision of useful skills in Bahrain. We particularly welcome its commitment to learning and debate, which is a critical service in a society that appears to be becoming more divided. We recommend that in response to this report the Government provide details on what skills training the British Council is providing in Bahrain in order to enhance their students' skills to participate more effectively in the political process of evolutionary reform and change. (Paragraph 170)

33.  The UK is well placed to capitalise on its business reputation in Bahrain as it begins large-scale infrastructure spending. (Paragraph 175)

34.  The Government should not grant any licence that could contribute to internal repression and should make decisions on other export licences on a case-by-case basis, ensuring the strict implementation of existing policies. The Government should provide in response to this report further evidence that it is adhering in practice to its own strict policies with regard to British defence equipment sold to Bahrain including any evidence gathered by end-use monitoring. (Paragraph 180)

35.  Both the government and the opposition in Bahrain view UK defence sales as a signal of British support for the government. The UK Government should take this into account when considering high-profile sales, such as the Eurofighter Typhoon, to Bahrain. (Paragraph 181)

36.  Bahrain provides the UK with an immensely valuable home in the Gulf and the defence co-operation is mutually beneficial. Ending defence co-operation and naval basing in Bahrain and seeking a substitute would be an extremely costly and difficult step. (Paragraph 192)

37.  We recommend that UK-supplied training, delivered in the UK or Bahrain, should always include human rights elements, and that the Government should set out in response to this report the elements included in its each of the training programmes provided to Bahrain that cover rights, the rule of law and the correct use of force. (Paragraph 193)

38.  We are disappointed that the Government has provided so little detail to Parliament and this Committee on its most recent defence accord with Bahrain. It was predictable that Bahrain would consider it a public signal of support and, if the Government did not mean it to send this message, it would have been more sensible to have immediately released information about the Accord and the UK's reasons for agreeing it at this time. We understand that the Government does not publish Defence Accord Agreements but in its response to this report, the Government should consider what, if any, further information it could release about this Defence Accord and the UK's reasons for signing it at this time. (Paragraph 194)

39.  Bahrain's implementation of the BICI recommendations has been disappointingly slow and has further damaged its international reputation. Swift implementation of the recommendations would have gone a long way toward preventing the breakdown in trust and fracturing of opposition in Bahrain. (Paragraph 200)

40.  We are particularly concerned by recent reports that the Bahraini authorities have banned political groups from having unrestricted access to diplomats. In its response to this report the Government should provide its assessment of the situation including information on whether it has affected any of the Embassy's meetings, along with any representations it has made to the authorities to lift the ban. (Paragraph 201)

41.  We conclude that the Government is right to pursue a strategy of engagement with Bahrain and to demonstrate the benefits of a reforming, moderate approach. However, British engagement and support should not be unconditional in the face of continued violations and slow implementation of reforms. There is a danger to the UK's credibility if it allows itself to become associated with the problems in Bahrain rather than solutions. (Paragraph 210)

42.  We recommend that the UK seek to meet members of the opposition groups whenever possible, and advocate on behalf of international and British NGOs for access to Bahrain. In its response to this report, the Government should set out the meetings held with Bahraini NGOs and opposition figures in the last 12 months, and the steps it has taken to improve NGO access to Bahrain. (Paragraph 211)

43.  We recommend that the Government make securing an invitation to the UN Special Rapporteur on torture a priority in its next Joint Working Group with the Bahraini authorities. (Paragraph 213)

44.  The UK is right to be understanding of Bahrain's dilemmas. For its region, prior to the protests it was liberal and reforming, and there is not an easy answer to its internal political issues. However, many of Bahrain's problems are of its Government's own making. The UK must press with greater urgency and force for Bahrain to implement the BICI reforms, engage seriously in dialogue and welcome UN mechanisms in order to re-establish good faith in its intentions. If there is no significant progress by the start of 2014, the Government should designate Bahrain as a 'country of concern' in its Human Rights Report. (Paragraph 214)

45.  We conclude that Bahrain is subject to intense pressure from other states in the Gulf, which have strong and opposing interests in what happens in Bahrain. The UK Government should work to improve the international context in which Bahrain seeks a national reconciliation. Regional players must be involved in the reform and reconciliation process if it is to have any chance to succeed. The sectarian element to Bahrain's troubles are a complicating factor, but also make Bahrain's reconciliation even more of a prize: if these communities can find a way to reconcile and work together then it will be an example in the region. (Paragraph 219)

FCO resources in the Gulf

46.  We welcome the Government's efforts to improve the FCO's Arabic language skills in the Gulf, in particular by designating more posts as 'speaker slots'. However, it appears that 25% of staff in those speaker slots have low levels of Arabic proficiency, and 40% have not reached the required standard for their grade, undermining the effect of this policy. For reasons of public diplomacy (to local television interviews, for example), as well as to demonstrate respect for the partner state, it is important that high-level FCO diplomats speak Arabic even in those states where they can manage in English or with a translator. In this context, we welcome the re-opening of the FCO's language school, fulfilling a pledge made by the Foreign Secretary in 2011. (Paragraph 226)

47.  We understand that it will take time to re-build Arabic language capacity, particularly at the senior levels of the FCO, but we believe that it is important that the Government demonstrate its commitment to the goal of improving language skills at all levels of the FCO and incentivise FCO staff to learn Arabic. We recommend that the FCO set a timeframe in which it expects to make a minimum level of Arabic language skills mandatory for those who wish to be appointed to senior diplomatic posts in the region. (Paragraph 227)

Future of UK-Gulf relations

48.  The UK must make the most of what it can offer the Gulf: an established partner with understanding of the region, and a bridge to the larger powers of the United States and European Union. (Paragraph 231)

49.  The UK will have to work harder in future to maintain its influence and secure its interests in the Gulf. The Government should ensure that it does not lose its current momentum and should be willing to dedicate further staff and other resources to this important region. (Paragraph 231)

50.  The Government should set out in its response to this report how the FCO is contributing to the Prime Minister's review of UK-Gulf relations, and what will be made public as a result of this review. (Paragraph 231)

51.  The Government must make the UK's public profile and reputation a more central part of its work in the Gulf, and ensure that constructive relationships are built with a wide cross-section of society, if it is to remain a principal partner in the future. (Paragraph 232)

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© Parliamentary copyright 2013
Prepared 22 November 2013