The state visit by King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia has ended, and both sides are now summing up the results. On balance, these must be seen as a disappointment, largely because the British side allowed public criticism and false expectations to mar the first such occasion for 20 years. The impression was given that many people in Britain, including several in the Government, did not really welcome the King’s visit, but believed it was necessary to Britain’s political interests. Arab culture does not readily forgive a host who is not hospitable.
The visit did not begin auspiciously. David Miliband, the Foreign Secretary, cancelled a scheduled meeting because he flew to America to be present for the birth of a child he is going to adopt. He is, of course, entitled to his family rights. But it was discourteous to give so little notice to the Saudi side, and it gave Prince Saud al-Faisal, the experienced Saudi foreign minister, little option but to cancel his participation also for protocol reasons. At the same time Vincent Cable, the acting leader of the small Liberal Democrat party, announced that he would boycott the visit because of his party’s objection to Saudi Arabia’s human rights record. This looked, to the Saudi side, childish and petulant. It was also extremely discourteous.
A state visits is an important symbolic occasion, intended to underpin a relationship of value to both countries.
Britain has a huge interest in maintaining warm relations with the House of Saud. Saudi Arabia is, by far, Britain’s biggest trading partner in the Middle East, with exports worth £4.4 billion last year, more than the total of all the other countries in the Middle East.
Political relations are also vital. Riyadh’s regional role is crucial. For many years, Saudi diplomacy was marked by excessive caution.
That has now changed. The Saudis have become bolder and more ready to play a leadership role. It was King Abdullah’s plan for a comprehensive settlement with Israel that became the basis of the Arab League’s peace proposals five years ago, and it is this plan that Israel now accepts as a realistic foundation for the proposed Arab-Israeli conference that is meant to be convened soon.
Britain has long been engaged in the search for a Middle East settlement. Indeed, Tony Blair, the former Prime Minister, was constantly urging President Bush to play a more active role in bringing all sides together. Now that he has left office, Mr. Blair is traveling in the region in an attempt to promote the kind of dialogue that he failed to achieve in office. Saudi Arabia is crucial to any lasting settlement. Not only does its wealth and alliance with the West give it real international importance; but as the Custodian of the two Holy Cities, King Abdullah’s influence would be crucial in persuading the wider Muslim world that the time was ripe for a settlement.
There are two further areas where British and Saudi interests coincide. One is Iraq. London will soon be withdrawing its troops after a war that has been very unpopular within Britain. But it needs to leave behind a more stable situation. Riyadh has strongly supported the minority Sunnis in Iraq, and Britain is trying to persuade Saudi Arabia to exercise a moderating influence on disillusioned Sunnis who are supporting the uprising. The second vital issue is Iran. Saudi Arabia shares the West’s deep suspicions of Iranian nuclear intentions, and is worried about what many see as a renaissance of Persian nationalism in the Gulf. There is a vital need to co-ordinate policies towards Tehran between the West and the Gulf Co-operation Council.
Finally, the issue of terrorism cannot be ignored. There is little evidence of any terrorist links between Saudi extremists and Islamists in Britain – indeed, King Abdullah insisted in an interview that Saudi Arabia had warned Britain of impending attacks. But there is considerable worry that Saudi money is still finding its way to extremist groups, and that many militants in the West are being indirectly given religious and financial backing from rich Saudis. This issue was raised privately during the visit, as it should have been. But public criticism was inappropriate: the House of Saud has robustly fought extremism in its own territory in the past three years, and it is not up to Britain to dictate how it deals with the issue.
Similarly, criticism of Saudi Arabia’s lack of an elected parliament or its human rights record is short-sighted. What needs to be understood is how far the country has come in how short a time. This was vividly made clear during the state visit by an extraordinary exhibition of historic photographs of the first visit by a member of Britain’s royal family to Saudi Arabia, in 1938. The pictures showed a country, before the oil boom, that seemed centuries behind in development, both social and economic. It should be remembered that King Abdullah is the son of the king who united Saudi Arabia. The changes he has seen and the reforms he has promoted in his lifetime are more fundamental than those in almost any other country. Would the country have moved faster under a republican government, with Islamists elected to office? It is unlikely.
The Queen and Britain’s royal family, of course, received the Saudis with all the traditional courtesies and warmth, and that probably meant must to the elderly, cautious and conservative monarch. It is a pity that not all the country showed the same understanding and support during the state visit.