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

2  Broader context: UK ties with the Gulf

Map supplied by FCO

7.  Saudi Arabia and Bahrain are members of a group of six oil-producing monarchies that border the Gulf, known as the Gulf States. In the context of the Arab Spring, which brought about a renewed focus on the UK's approach to supporting human rights and democratic reform, our witnesses considered that the Gulf States were particularly challenging for FCO policy. Although their domestic situations vary, some Gulf States are among the least democratic in the world, and they generally have poor or very poor human rights records. However, most are also wealthy and influential, and vitally important to many of the UK's interests in the region.

8.  In many ways, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain are at opposite ends of the spectrum among the Gulf States: Saudi Arabia is the largest oil-producer in the Gulf and indeed the world, and accounts for over 20% of the region's GDP,[5] while Bahrain has comparatively few natural resources and is the Gulf's smallest economy. In this chapter, we consider the UK's broad approach to the Gulf region as a context for looking at its relationship with Saudi Arabia and Bahrain in detail.

Historic ties with the Gulf States

9.  The UK has a unique history of close relationships with Gulf rulers and involvement in Gulf affairs including, in different ways, with Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. The region became important to the UK in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries as the UK established and protected its global trading network and, eventually, its empire. Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, and the UAE[6] all became British Protectorates during the nineteenth and early twentieth century, ceding to the UK control of their foreign affairs in return for guaranteeing their security. Connections were also established with Oman and Saudi Arabia, and by the early twentieth century the UK had become the pre-eminent Western power in the Gulf. The Second World War and end of the British Empire had inevitable consequences for the UK's influence in the region, and the UK's role as a principal power and guarantor of security in the area was eclipsed by the United States and the Gulf States' own growing power. Britain withdrew from its remaining commitments in regions east of Suez in 1971, and the Gulf now comprises six independent and wealthy states with considerable regional power of their own.

10.  The FCO told us that the Gulf had mattered to the UK for generations, and described the UK's relationships in the Gulf as "among our most enduring in the world".[7] Britain's long history of involvement in the region has advantages and disadvantages. Jane Kinninmont warned that some elements of ruling families who felt they were disadvantaged by British influence still harboured "resentments",[8] and several witnesses considered that in the wider society there existed an exaggerated sense of the UK's ongoing influence and power, and a perception that "behind the scenes there may still be Brits pulling strings".[9] This latter point is particularly true in Bahrain, which remained a British Protectorate until 1971 and is where the UK (arguably) continues to exert the most influence in the Gulf. However, the fact that the Gulf wasn't directly colonised was generally thought to have resulted in a more mutually respectful relationship between elites than has been the case elsewhere, [10] and the UK now has a valuable legacy of close ties with a number of Gulf rulers.[11] For the Gulf monarchies, the history of bilateral relations between our two states is also a personal, and recent, history of their families and states. Throughout the whole of Britain's relations with Saudi Arabia since its formation in the 1930s, it has been ruled by the current King's father and brothers. In Bahrain, one of our witnesses reminded us that the British adviser was effectively one of the most powerful men in the Kingdom until 1957, within the living memory of some of the members of the current royal family. Witnesses also noted a sense in the Gulf of the UK as an experienced and knowledgeable partner, particularly in comparison with other Western states (such as the US). Professor Rosemary Hollis indicated that there was an element of flattery to this,[12] but Neil Partrick said "The clich is, 'You understand us. You have been around roughly for 150 years'".[13]

Ongoing interests

11.  The UK's relationship with the Gulf is not merely historical but reflects ongoing and, in some cases, growing British interests in the region. As one of the most prosperous areas in the world, located in the heart of the Middle East, with over 160,000 British nationals living and working in the Gulf, the region is important for all three of the FCO's key objectives: protecting the UK's security, supporting British nationals overseas, and promoting the UK's economy. The Gulf States are particularly important to the UK in the following fields:

  • Defence: The UK has defence cooperation arrangements with all six Gulf States which between them provide bases for the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force, and there is typically at least one Royal Navy frigate or destroyer based in the Gulf, as well as Royal Navy mine hunters.
  • Counter-terrorism: The Gulf States are important counter-terrorism partners, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE are founding members of the Global Counter-Terrorism Forum (GCTF), an informal, multi-lateral 'platform' for sharing counter-terrorism expertise and enhancing international cooperation; and the UK and UAE co-chair the GCTF's Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) working group, which aims to strengthen measures and discuss best practice, and collaborate on a CVE Centre of Excellence.
  • Energy security: as the home of 55% of the world's proven oil reserves and 45% of its proven gas reserves, the Gulf is critical to global energy security and market stability.
  • Trade and investment: Perhaps unsurprisingly, given its natural resources, the Gulf region has a combined GDP of £1.3 trillion and an average annual GDP growth of 5.4% over the last five years. It is now the UK's seventh largest export market, which the Government pointed out, was "larger than India, Russia and Mexico combined". In addition, the region is home to 27% of the world's sovereign wealth and has increased its investments in the UK over the last few years through high-profile ventures such as the London Bridge skyscraper The Shard, and the London Gateway Port Project.

12.  Saudi Arabia and Bahrain fit into this mixture of interests in different ways: Saudi Arabia is very important to defence, counter-terrorism, energy security and trade, though it is far less well represented with respect to inward investment into the UK than some of its neighbours in the Gulf, such as Qatar and the UAE. In contrast, Bahrain is the smallest economy and partner for UK trade and investment in the Gulf, but by merit of its location in the Gulf and its willingness to host UK and US naval assets, it is vitally important to the UK's interests in defence and energy security. 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.

UK Government policy: renewing ties

13.  On taking office in 2010, the Foreign Secretary announced his intention to reinvigorate bilateral ties with the Gulf States,[14] which he considered to be "obvious examples" of states with which Britain has historic ties, and could "do more."[15] This commitment to the Gulf is part of the Government's broader efforts to promote closer bilateral relationships between Britain and the major emerging global markets, and to place greater emphasis on the UK's historic partnerships as part of a distinctive and long-term British foreign policy.[16] The FCO's subsequent May 2011 Business Plan contained plans to re-launch UK engagement with the Gulf States by establishing "strategic relationships" with all six states, strengthening regional security and improving commercial, economic, cultural and educational ties.[17] It has succeeded in doing so with five of the six Gulf States; only Saudi Arabia has not signed a dialogue or joint working agreement (see chapter 3 for more details).

14.  The Government also launched a cross-departmental 'Gulf Initiative' in 2010. The Gulf Initiative does not have dedicated staff or published strategy, but acts as a statement of intent and an overarching framework for the UK's renewed effort toward the Gulf. It has a relatively small budget of approximately £98,000 to fund related projects, for instance to support ministerial bilateral meetings; to support a Commercial Diplomacy project to promote UK companies in major industrial centres in South and West Saudi Arabia; and the help fund the position of the "Defence Special Adviser to the Middle East" when his work is in support of FCO objectives in the Gulf.[18] This is unlike the FCO's Arab Partnership Initiative, (now called Arab Partnership), which has a dedicated staff and a multi-million pound fund for projects jointly administered with DfID, although there is some overlap between the two (see paragraph 20 for Arab Partnership funding for projects in the Gulf).

15.  The Government has pursued improved diplomatic ties by increasing the number of high-level ministerial visits to and from the region, and by establishing working groups that offer guaranteed opportunities for ministerial-level dialogue. The Government has also said it intends to become the Gulf's commercial 'partner of choice', and it has set ambitious trade targets, including the doubling of trade with Kuwait and Qatar by 2015. The UK Trade and Investment (UKTI), the Government's trade promotion body, has a Middle East Taskforce focused on the high growth markets of the Gulf (UAE, Saudi Arabia and Qatar) and Egypt, and the Prime Minister has led two trade delegations to the region in the last three years. Cultural exchange projects have included the British Museum's Hajj exhibition, as well as the Qatar-UK 2013 'Year of Culture', which aims to forge new partnerships in the arts, education, sport and science.

Significant outward and inward visits 2010-2013
Outward (to Gulf) Inward (from Gulf)
Over 230 outward visits by ministers from all government departments since 2010, including:
  • Four visits to the Gulf by the current UK Prime Minister since 2010
  • State visit by Her Majesty the Queen in November 2010 to Oman and the UAE
  • Visit by His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall in March 2013 to Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Qatar and Oman.
Over 100 inward visits from "senior Gulf interlocutors"[19], including:
  • Inward visit by His Highness the Emir of Qatar in October 2010
  • Inward visit by His Highness the Amir of Kuwait in November 2012
  • Inward visit by the President of the United Arab Emirates in April-May 2013.
  • Inward visit by the King of Bahrain in November 2012 and August 2013.

16.  The Government told us that the Gulf Initiative was showing "clear results" in its effort to reverse neglect of the UK's relationships in the Gulf in previous years, and that "increased UK engagement has been noticed and welcomed by our key contacts in the region at the highest levels."[20] The FCO told us that the UK's bilateral trade with the Gulf had increased by 39% over the last two years, from £21.5 billion to £29.8 billion.[21] The then Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, Alistair Burt MP, the Minister with responsibility for the Middle East and North Africa, acknowledged that diplomats in the Gulf under previous governments were "giving absolutely 100% of their best" but said that the word neglect had "popped up" anecdotally on visits to the region, and the Government had felt that there was more that could be done through increased visits "and more we could do to give a sense that traditional partners were as important now and in the future as they had been in the past."[22] The then Lord Mayor of London, Roger Gifford, provided support for the Government's position, writing that

until the last Government was elected in 2010, the Lord Mayor was the only person on Ministerial level who visited the Gulf on a regular basis. Since then the number of Ministerial visits has grown and, whilst this has challenged Posts, it has been appreciated greatly by the rulers and governments of the Gulf States.[23]

17.  All of our witnesses agreed that ministerial and royal visits were appreciated in the Gulf. Chris Doyle said that visits mattered, particularly at the current time: "They want to see top-level royals and top-level Ministers coming to see them, nurturing that relationship. It is a time when they feel they need reassurance." [24] However, witnesses cast doubt as to the claim that the UK had previously neglected the Gulf, and the perception that the relationship had significantly improved under the Gulf Initiative. Dr Neil Partrick said he had been "struck by the Conservative Opposition's concern about giving more attention to a relationship that they felt was neglected. I don't think that the leaders of the GCC[25] actually did feel neglected […] I do not think that the UK Government has a lot of catching up to do."[26] Former ambassadors Sir Roger Tomkys and Robin Lamb also felt that there had been continued diplomatic effort throughout the period, and Jane Kinninmont saw "a fair amount of continuity. The Saudi King's only state visit to the UK was under the previous government."[27]

18.  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.

The UK's support for reform and human rights in the Gulf

19.  Upon taking office in 2010, the Government emphasised human rights as a central pillar of its foreign policy. During one of his key speeches in 2010 that set out the UK's foreign policy direction, the Foreign Secretary said:

Our foreign policy should always have consistent support for human rights and poverty reduction at its irreducible core and we should always strive to act with moral authority, recognising that once that is damaged it is hard to restore.[28]

The Arab Spring revolutions that began the following year led to a renewed focus on the UK's approach to supporting human rights and democratic reform, particularly in the Middle East and North Africa. The FCO told us that it had adopted a "values-based approach" to the Arab Spring, and highlighted a speech made by the Prime Minister to the Kuwait National Parliament in February 2011, at the height of the Arab uprisings. The Prime Minister spoke about previous UK foreign policy and the Government's new approach:

For decades, some have argued that stability required highly controlling regimes, and that reform and openness would put that stability at risk. So, the argument went, countries like Britain faced a choice between our interests and our values. And to be honest, we should acknowledge that sometimes we have made such calculations in the past. But I say that is a false choice. 

As recent events have confirmed, denying people their basic rights does not preserve stability, rather the reverse. Our interests lie in upholding our values—in insisting on the right to peaceful protest, in freedom of speech and the internet, in freedom of assembly and the rule of law. But these are not just our values, but the entitlement of people everywhere; of people in Tahrir Square as much as Trafalgar Square.

The Prime Minister went on to offer "a new chapter in Britain's long partnership with our friends in this region".

20.  The FCO created the Arab Partnership in 2011, which it says constitutes the FCO's "strategic response to the Arab Spring". It is backed by the Arab Partnership Fund (APF) which will spend £110 million over 2011-15 on relevant projects in Arab states. Of this, £40m is administered by the FCO's Arab Partnership Participation Fund (APPF), which funs projects in the Arab world, including the Gulf, that support political participation; freedom of expression and public voice; and good governance.[29]
Arab Partnership Participation Fund funding to Gulf States 2011-2013
BahrainGood Governance: Run by Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Prisons (HMIP) & OPCAT

Supporting the ratification and implementation of Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture (OPCAT) in Bahrain, by sharing best practice, raising awareness and facilitating development of independent monitoring of detention.

1yr £30,000
Kuwait Political Participation: Run by Ittejahat for Studies and Research (working with Gallup)

Developing national opinion polling and research by establishing a professional independent unit to provide decision-makers with accurate data.

1yr £40,000
Oman Public Voice: Run by Twofour54/ Thomson Reuters Foundation

Supporting Oman's Shura Council by strengthening communication skills of MPs and Parliamentary staff, to improve communication between parliament and the media.

1 yr £55,077
Good governance: Run by: British Council and the Bar Council Human Rights Committee

Providing peer support and advice to lawyers, prosecutors, parliamentarians and law students/ academics to strengthen rule of law and principles of human rights

2 yrs £213,561
In addition, Bahrain is one of the states in receipt of funding for two multi-state programmes on Good Governance (by Transparency International) and Anti Corruption (by the John Smith Memorial Trust), worth a total of £2.5 million.[30] There have been no Arab Partnership funding programmes in Saudi Arabia.


21.  The Arab Spring caused Gulf rulers to be apprehensive about the revolutions' potential for destabilising the region and empowering their domestic and external opponents, and increased their sensitivity to perceived criticism of how they deal with dissent. Our witnesses provided us with little to suggest that the Gulf as a whole was in the process of reform, and Jane Kinninmont told us that "if anything, political rights for nationals have been reduced in the last two years across the board in the Gulf, with more criminalisation of dissent."[31] Freedom House, an American NGO, provided support for this. Its 2013 Freedom in the World report observed that "The past several years, and the past year in particular, have featured a steady decline in democratic institutions and in some cases an increase in repressive policies among the Persian Gulf states."[32] The following chart shows declines in freedom rankings in the last few years in four of the six Gulf States (higher numbers denotes less free):

[Freedom House has published this annual comparative assessment of political rights and civil liberties for the last 39 years. Each country is assigned two numerical ratings—one for political rights and one for civil liberties—based on a 1 to 7 scale. Underlying those ratings are more detailed assessments of country situations based on a 40-point scale for political rights and a 60-point scale for civil liberties. For comparison, the UK has been ranked as '1: Free' on the Freedom House Rankings since 2003.]

22.  Freedom House assigns its rankings on a scale of 1 to 7, with 1 as the most free and 7 as the least. Every year, each country is assigned a numerical rating on this scale for its political rights and for its civil liberties.[33] This chart shows that Saudi Arabia and Bahrain are now the two lowest-ranking states in the Gulf (Bahrain is matched by the UAE, both ranked at '6' in 2012-3). While Saudi Arabia has been consistently below all the other Gulf states and has received the lowest possible ranking for its civil and political rights throughout the majority of the last thirteen years due to its long-term lack of democracy and human rights, Bahrain was for seven years second only to Kuwait in its freedoms, but has dropped significantly since 2009. The Freedom House reports for this period attribute Saudi Arabia's low scores to restrictions on political representation and opposition; the media; freedom of religion, expression and assembly; and women's rights. It further registers concerns about corruption, the lack of an independent judiciary, torture, and discrimination.[34] In contrast, Bahrain was considered 'Partly Free' in 2003-9 (the only Gulf State aside from Kuwait to achieve this), reflecting several years of political reform in the early 2000s, which saw the Islamist opposition party Al Wefaq win elections to the Lower House of the National Assembly in 2005. From 2007-8, Freedom House began to register concerns about a government crackdown on opposition figures and the use of force to disperse protests, as well as growing sectarian tension. In 2010 it downgraded Bahrain to 'Not Free', and in 2012 it further lowered its ratings in direct response to the violence and repression of the Bahraini authorities in responding to the protests.

23.  Our witnesses told us that the Western response to the Arab Spring had also caused Gulf rulers concern and apprehension about the steadfastness of their allies.[35] Neil Partrick said that former Egyptian President Mubarak had been a personal friend of King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, and his downfall had been seen by some as the result of machinations by Western governments which were perceived to have 'abandoned' former allies and embraced Islamist groups that were regarded as threatening by some states in the Gulf. He said that as a result, the UK in particular was no longer seen as "a kind of cavalry waiting to come over a hill".[36]

24.  The Government considered the events of the Arab Spring to be "game-changing" and "the key strategic development since the launch of the [Gulf] Initiative."[37] It told us that it had "therefore adjusted the HMG approach to reflect lessons so far, with emphasis on supporting long-term political and economic reform across Gulf States".[38] Partly to alleviate concerns in the Gulf about the UK's enthusiastic welcome for reform elsewhere in the region, the Government put emphasis on its commitment to long term reform and respect for different approaches. Mr Burt said: "The UK government is very clear in its condemnation of violence and its insistence on upholding the rule of law and individual rights, but it is also clear that there is no blueprint for legitimately governing a country and no one-size-fits-all model."[39] On a visit to the UAE in November 2012, the Prime Minister expanded on the UK's attitude toward reform in the Gulf states:

My country very strongly believes that giving people both a job and a voice is vital for creating stable, prosperous societies, and we have a history of supporting human rights around the world. Now that does not mean that we preach or lecture; different countries take different pathways to becoming more open societies. We should be respectful of the different journey that countries are taking. We should be respectful of different traditions, different cultures.

But I do think that standing up for human rights and standing up for the right of people to have a job and a voice around the world is important, and I think this is a discussion that our countries can have. [40]

The Prime Minister emphasised the importance of discussing difficult topics between close partners, but said it should not be "a relationship based on lecturing or hectoring."[41] Rather than advocating a direct move to an electoral democracy, the Prime Minister spoke about the need for the "building blocks of democracy and open societies", including courts, the rule of law, and a "proper place" for the military. [42]

25.  The FCO drew our attention to the Prime Minister's speech as an indication of its approach, and reiterated the UK's commitment to long-term reform in the Gulf, emphasising legitimacy, participation and consent as vital elements of a governing model:

It is in our fundamental national interest to see stable and open societies emerge across the Middle East over time. The Arab Spring has confirmed that long-term stability requires legitimacy derived from citizen participation and consent. However it is for each country in the region to develop a model that reflects its own unique historical and social context and gives every citizen a stake in the political and economic life of their countries. It is not for us to dictate change in any country in the region.[43]

With regard to both Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, we identified four key underlying elements to the Government's approach:

  • An assessment that both states are heading in the right direction, in difficult circumstances. Alistair Burt, then Minister with responsibility for the Middle East and North Africa, told us that "In both Saudi Arabia and Bahrain we are dealing with countries that are edging, in different ways, towards reform."[44]
  • A conviction that it is not the UK's place to dictate change to states with different histories and cultural traditions, even if it had the capacity to do so.
  • A belief that the UK's leverage to effect change in the Gulf is limited, and best achieved by working within the system of the other state.
  • An understanding that with respect to both states, private pressure from the UK can sometimes be more effective than public pressure.

Within this broader context, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain have very different domestic situations with regard to human rights and reform. While Saudi Arabia was commonly seen as one of the least democratic states in the world, prior to 2011 Bahrain was seen as a reforming state and a progressive one, relative to its Gulf neighbours. On this basis, the UK has adopted a strategy of engagement with both states - offering a combination of support, training and private discussions on human rights issues; alongside some public criticism and pressure in certain circumstances. The balance between these approaches differs in accordance with the Government's understanding of its influence and the most effective means to effect improvements. This will be examined in greater detail in the bilateral relations section of this report.

26.  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.

5   Speech by HRH Prince Turki al Faisal for the Henry Jackson Society at the House of Commons, 'A Saudi Perspective on a Changing Middle East', 12 September 2013. Back

6   Before becoming the United Arab Emirates on its independence from the UK, the UAE was known as the Trucial States.  Back

7   Ev 133 Back

8   Q 4 Back

9   Q 4 Back

10   See, for instance, Q4 and Q 193  Back

11   See, for instance, Q69 and Q 193 Back

12   Q 75 Back

13   Q 4 Back

14   Speech by the Foreign Secretary William Hague, 'Britain's Foreign Policy in a Networked World', 1 July 2010, London. Published on FCO website: Back

15   Interview with the Foreign Secretary, 17 June 2010, Al Jazeera. Published on FCO website:  Back

16   "Foreign Secretary visits Bahrain", FCO announcement, 10 February 2011 Back

17   Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Business Plan 2011-15, May 2011, p.7 and p.19 Back

18   Information provided by the FCO, October 2013 [not published] Back

19   The figures of 160 outward and 100 inward visits were provided in the FCO's written submission in November 2012. It can be assumed that these numbers will have increased since then. Back

20   Second Report from the Foreign Affairs Committee, Session 2012-13, British Foreign Policy and the 'Arab Spring', HC80 Ev 81 Back

21   Ev 134 Back

22   Q 381 Back

23   Ev 124 Back

24   Q 69 Back

25   The Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC): a regional organisation comprising the six Gulf States. Back

26   Q 3 Back

27   Q 3 Back

28   Speech by the Foreign Secretary William Hague, 'Britain's Foreign Policy in a Networked World', 1 July 2010, London. Published on FCO website: Back

29   APPF spending in the Gulf States is capped at £250,000 per annum in line with the FCO's Overseas Development Assistance (ODA) commitments. See FCO, Arab Partnership Programme Approach 2011-15 Back

30   FCO, Arab Partnership Programme Fund: Project list FY 12/13.  Back

31   Q 16 Back

32   Freedom House, Freedom in the World 2013:Democratic Breakthroughs in the Balance: Selected data from Freedom House's annual survey of political rights and civil liberties.  Back

33   Underlying the Freedom House ratings are more detailed assessments of country situations based on a 40-point scale for political rights and a 60-point scale for civil liberties. The Report explains: A 'Free' country is one where there is open political competition, a climate of respectfor civil liberties, significant independentcivic life, and independent media.A'Partly Free'country is one in whichthere is limited respect for political rights and civil liberties. Partly Free states frequently suffer from an environment of corruption, weak rule of law, ethnic and religious strife, and a political landscape in which a single party enjoys dominance despite a certain degree of pluralism. A 'Not Free' country is one where basic political rights are absent, and basic civil liberties are widely and systematically denied. Back

34   Freedom House, Freedom in the World database on Freedom House website, at Back

35   See, for instance, Q 177 Back

36   Q 8 Back

37   Second Report from the Foreign Affairs Committee, Session 2012-13, British Foreign Policy and the 'Arab Spring', HC80, Ev 81 Back

38   Ibid. Back

39   Q 379 Back

40   Q&A with Prime Minister David Cameron, 5 November 2012, Zayed University, Abu Dhabi.  Back

41   Ibid.  Back

42   Ibid.  Back

43   Ev 133 Back

44   Q 425 Back

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© Parliamentary copyright 2013
Prepared 22 November 2013