The Observer view on Britain’s relationship with Saudi Arabia | Observer editorial | Opinion


Dramatic falls in global oil prices are the result, primarily, of collapsing demand due to the coronavirus pandemic. Other factors predating the crisis are also at work: this year’s price-cutting war between Saudi Arabia and Russia, overproduction resulting in crude oil surpluses and a chronic lack of storage capacity.

Yet conventional market explanations obscure a bigger, more exciting story. It is the story of the green, clean energy revolution, of rapidly expanding use of wind and solar power and the prospective end of the fossil fuel era. Renewables will make up almost 30% of world demand for electricity this year.

Last week, Britain set a record by going 18 consecutive days without resorting to coal-fired power generation, according to National Grid data. The UK also hit a new solar power high on 20 April. Since 2012, the amount of emissions required to produce one kilowatt hour of energy has declined by more than two-thirds.

These advances towards a net-zero carbon future are artificially accelerated by the Covid-19 lockdown. They could be reversed. Yet sustainable energy generation, and its crucial importance in tackling the climate crisis, is one of many areas where today’s enforced changes could lead to fundamental, permanent shifts in the “post-oil” future.

Britain’s dysfunctional and often embarrassing relationship with Saudi Arabia, one of the world’s leading oil producers, should form part of any such post-pandemic reappraisal. British dependence on Saudi crude increased after Iran’s 1979 revolution. North Sea discoveries changed that. Most imported UK oil now comes from Norway. Only 3% comes from Saudi Arabia.

Successive governments have nevertheless continued to nurture the Saudi relationship. A main reason is Riyadh’s apparently insatiable appetite for weaponry. According to analysis by the Campaign Against Arms Trade, BAE Systems sold £15bn worth of arms and services to Saudi Arabia between 2015 to 2019. Thousands of British jobs are said to be contingent on such sales.

Much of this weaponry has been used in the Saudi-led campaign in Yemen, which entered its sixth murderous year in March. The UN says the war has helped cause the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. In June last year, to the government’s disgust, the court of appeal halted UK arms sales, citing concerns about a “historic pattern of breaches of international humanitarian law”.

If oil and arms are taken out of the equation, what remains to bind Britain to an undemocratic, quasi-feudal regime notorious for its human rights abuses, repression of its Shia Muslim minority, institutionalised discrimination against women and dangerous efforts to draw Britain and the US into confrontation with its arch rival, Iran?

One often-heard justification for turning a blind eye is that the Saudis offer invaluable intelligence in the fight against fanatical Islamist groups such as Islamic State and al-Qaida. It is certainly in Britain’s interest that the Saudis continue to cooperate with western counter-terrorism efforts.

But it’s a two-way street. The Saudi regime lacks legitimacy. It faces a region-wide challenge from Iran and threats of its own from Sunni extremists. It appears unable, despite superficial reforms, to satisfy a youthful population’s aspirations for a more open society. Terrorism, feeding off instability and injustice, is a big problem for Riyadh, too.

High levels of Saudi investment in British businesses and property are also given as an excuse for maintaining the status quo. But if nothing else does, the brutal 2018 murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi, allegedly on the orders of the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, should shatter such complacency.

Right now, for example, the Premier League should heed Khashoggi’s fiancee, Hatice Cengiz, and block the proposed purchase of Newcastle United by a Saudi fund controlled by Salman. And once the Covid crisis is past, the government should launch a full-spectrum review of bilateral relations.

Collapsing demand for their key export means the Saudis are not the power they were. The oil sheikhs are out of pocket and out of time.



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