x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 20 July 2017

Testing times for UK-Saudi relations

Trial, inquiry into Britain's relations with the kingdom and an arms contract squabble are putting a strain on ties. Omar Karmi reports from London

LONDON // These are strained times for British-Saudi relations.

Two senior Saudi princes are involved in a London court case that, they say, could endanger their lives if evidence is heard in public.

The fulfilment of a £6 billion (Dh33.5bn) contract for British fighter jets is being held up by a contractual dispute.

And the UK parliament has launched a inquiry into Britain's relations with the kingdom, and Bahrain, after the former's support of the crackdown on Arab Spring-inspired protests in the latter in 2011.

If the current tensions are unlikely to fundamentally affect a relationship forged in more than half a century of changing imperial fortune and Middle East turmoil, they do show that Arab Spring reverberations are changing old certainties.

With both western and Arab countries "trying to work out the fallout" from the regional upheaval, said Jamie Ingram of IHS Jane's, a London-based group of publications focused on military and intelligence affairs, "you are going to get clusters like these".

Saudi Arabia has expressed unhappiness with the parliamentary inquiry into British-Saudi and British-Bahraini ties. The Commons Foreign Affairs Committee announced the inquiry in September and is currently hearing evidence.

The remit is general, focusing on all aspects of relations, from human rights to trade. But it was created after the Bahrain uprising was subdued with the help of the Peninsula Shield Force, which included 1,000 Saudi troops.

Critics say the inquiry serves "no purpose".

"An inquiry like this into the relations of one country with another is bound to be seen as an embarrassment and indeed it is an embarrassment," Howard Wheeldon, an independent defence analyst who gave evidence to the inquiry last month, said in a recent interview. "I think it's very regrettable. The timing … serves no purpose and is to the benefit of nobody."

The inquiry caused unnamed Saudi officials to complain of being "insulted" to the BBC in October, saying the kingdom was "re-evaluating" its ties with Britain.

Against this backdrop, the London High Court case in which two Saudi princes are claimants takes on added significance.

Lawyers representing the princes in a litigation against Jordanian businessmen over profits and reputations said details of their case, if made public, could damage relations between the two countries and put the princes in danger.

Last month, the court denied diplomatic immunity to Prince Mishal Al Saud, 86, a former Saudi minister of defence and the son of the Kingdom's founder, King Abdulaziz, and his son, Prince Abdulaziz bin Mishal bin Abdulaziz Al Saud. The court also rejected a request to hear evidence in secret, pending an appeal that will be decided next month.

Such are the "very personal" nature of British-Saudi relations, a court case like this could affect ties, said Mr Ingram. Prince Mishal is the head of the Saudi Allegiance Council, the body that decides on issues of succession, and a senior member of the royal family.

"You need goodwill between all of the partners involved. If this [case] alienated and angered some of the senior Saudi princes it could affect relations with the UK," Mr Ingram added.

A deterioration in UK-Saudi relations has major financial implications because Saudi Arabia is a significant trading partner. The British prime minister, David Cameron, has visited the kingdom twice, most recently in November.

Downing Street said the visit was part of an effort to build a "reinvigorated partnership". It was also an attempt to secure British exports to the region. Saudi Arabia accounts for nearly 35 per cent of Britain's £5 billion annual exports of defence equipment and services.

The visit could not prevent a dispute between the British defence contractor BAE Systems and Saudi Arabia over the £6bn arms deal for 72 Typhoon Eurofighter jets, 24 of which have been delivered so far.

Differences over price and whether the next delivery would be of the latest version of the fighter derailed plans for the second batch, which was to be handed over in December. The dispute is unresolved, but Mr Wheeldon said it would be wrong to see this as a result of any political turbulence in the relationship.

Nevertheless, the deal, and Saudi Arabia's importance to the British arms industry, has raised alarms in some quarters of the UK that the kingdom enjoys undue influence.

In 2010, BAE paid £286m in fines over accounting irregularities related to the deal, a penalty anti-bribery campaigners said amounted to a let-off. In 2006, Britain's Serious Fraud Office dropped a investigation into BAE's arms sales to Saudi Arabia after direct intervention from Tony Blair, the prime minister at the time.

With the British parliament recently passing legislation that allows hearings to be held in secret in matters of national security, some worry that countries with clout can abuse the system.

"We have in the past seen investigations into arms deals with Saudi Arabia abandoned, and evidence kept secret by British ministers on the grounds that it would affect UK-Saudi relations," said Donald Campbell of Reprieve, a London-based human-rights legal group.

"There is a real risk that the UK government will now be able to use secret courts to cover up not only its own embarrassment, but also that of its allies."

okarmi@thenational.ae

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