The kingdom is a tried and tested ally with strong intelligence, trade and defence ties that benefit us
By Con Coughlin–
The last time Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister visited London, the Foreign Office gave him a lecture on reconciling the kingdom’s differences with Iran, its bitter regional rival. Adel al-Jubair had arrived in the autumn looking for assurances from the Foreign Secretary, Philip Hammond, that Britain’s long-standing strategic partnership with Riyadh would not be affected by the restoration of ties with Tehran.
Instead, the youthful Saudi diplomat was told that the Foreign Office wanted to use its new relationship to reconcile the two regional superpowers.
Mr al-Jubair was told that the British Embassy in Tehran, which had been officially reopened in August by Mr Hammond standing in front of a portrait of the Queen defaced with anti-British graffiti, could be used to aid the reconciliation process between the Saudis and Iran.
Given the deep-rooted political and religious schism that has developed between Shia Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia in recent decades, it is hard to imagine how highly experienced Foreign Office diplomats could have misjudged the situation so badly.
For, rather than responding positively to the request, Mr al-Jubair stated bluntly that the Saudis had no intention of healing the rift with Iran.
On the contrary, he warned that, so long as Iranian officials were openly bragging about their mounting influence in Arab countries such as Yemen, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, the Saudis would not rest until all Arab lands were returned to Arab control.
The Saudis’ decision last weekend to execute the Shia cleric Shiekh Nimr al-Nimr, as well as 46 other prisoners convicted on terrorism charges, may have provoked the biggest crisis in relations between Riyadh and Tehran since Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution, but the tensions leading to this fissure have been evident for many months.
In Yemen, the Saudis and their Gulf allies have spent most of the past year fighting attempts by Iranian-backed Houthis to seize control of a country that the Saudis regard as falling under their regional sphere of influence.
It is a similar picture in Syria, where the Saudis are backing opposition groups committed to overthrowing the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, a close ally of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards. There have even been tensions between Riyadh and the pro-Western government of Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, whose perceived close alliance with Iran resulted in Iraq’s exclusion from the Saudis’ recently formed 34-nation coalition to fight Islamic State (Isil) – a grave omission given that Iraq has a vital role to play in defeating Isil. So much for the Foreign Office’s naïve hope of persuading Iran and the Saudis to settle their differences.
Indeed, with relations between Riyadh and Tehran becoming more hostile by the day, rather than trying to play the role of peacemaker, the Foreign Office and the rest of Whitehall need to make up their minds over whose side they are on – the Saudis or Iran?
Given the long-standing intelligence, trade and defence ties that exist between Britain and the Saudis, the answer should be self-evident. There will always be deep disagreement between London and Riyadh on issues like human rights, which is inevitable given the Saudis’ strict adherence to the principles of Sharia law.
There is an influential group of Foreign Office officials who argue that Britain’s long-term interests may be better served by building closer relations with Tehran. Conveniently ignoring the fact that the ayatollahs have a far worse human rights record than the Saudis.
But when it comes to defending Britain’s national interests, both at home and abroad, the Saudis, unlike Tehran, have time and again proved themselves to be reliable and effective allies. The support provided by Saudi Arabia and other pro-Western Gulf states such as Bahrain has been vital to maintaining the flow of vital oil supplies to the West, while intelligence provided by the Saudi security services has helped to foil a number of terrorist outrages on the streets of Britain.
And yet, while the Saudis have time and again demonstrated the value of the alliance, there is an influential group of Foreign Office officials who argue that Britain’s long-term interests may be better served by building closer relations with Tehran. Conveniently ignoring the fact that the ayatollahs have a far worse human rights record than the Saudis (per capita the Iranians have carried out more executions – including juveniles – than the Saudis in the past year), they argue that, now Iran has agreed a deal over its nuclear programme, Tehran could become a vital ally.
Setting aside the decades of Iranian hostility that has poisoned relations with London, this new generation of would-be Iranophiles also conveniently overlooks the fact that in Syria – Britain’s real foreign policy priority – the Iranians are fighting on the wrong side – i.e. in defence of the Assad regime. Nor, after Iran last week fired a missile close to a US warship in the Strait of Hormuz, can there be any guarantee the nuclear deal will result in more responsible conduct.
Seeking to have improved relations with Iran might constitute good diplomacy. But when it comes to defending our interests, sticking with tried and tested allies like Saudi Arabia makes far better sense.