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

6  Future of UK-Gulf relations

228.  The Government has placed a renewed emphasis on its long-term relations with both Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, in part by relying on our rich heritage of historic links with these traditional allies. This is a pragmatic and shrewd approach given the particular weight that personal and long-lasting relations have in the region, and the UK has been successful in maintaining and deepening warm relations with both states, despite a challenging period.

229.  The future of the UK's relationship with the Gulf States, as well as the future stability of the Gulf as a whole, depends upon continuing (and accelerating) political and economic reforms. There was disagreement among our witnesses, and in the academic community more generally, about how far the Gulf rulers have the will or capacity to enact the necessary reforms. Having made a big commitment to its relationships with the Gulf rulers, the Government must consider how best it can support these vital reforms in the Gulf.

230.  The situation demands a nuanced foreign policy that takes account of what is achievable, how that can be encouraged, as well as what would be counter-productive. However, the British public also rightly demand an absolute position regarding human rights and values around the world. Marrying the two is the job of the FCO. Though it appears to be doing that job, it has not yet persuaded the public in the UK or internationally of that. In a time of global interconnectedness, of a growing role for public opinion and mobilisation, and where our speeches and action can be compared across the world, this is no small failing.

231.  Yet the UK should not over-estimate its influence. Our witnesses argued that the Gulf States will inevitably make decisions based on their understanding of their own interests. In addition, witnesses identified regional powers such as Egypt and Turkey as the "real players" who were more important to the Gulf States, as well as the fact that Gulf trade patterns are shifting East, toward China and other Asian partners. 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. The Gulf will remain a region of important strategic significance in the coming years, but 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. The Prime Minister has established a team to create a strategic framework for future relations with the Gulf. 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.

232.  Finally, both states have young and growing populations, and it remains to be seen if the historical ties between our states will resonate for the younger, more educated and globally-connected generation. Without drawing comparisons to the revolutions of the Arab Spring, one of the lessons that this Committee drew was the need to connect with the public in each state, rather than relying on traditional 'elite' ties. 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.

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Prepared 22 November 2013