Drowned out by the furore over Donald Trump’s tweets, Theresa May’s Middle East visit this week reinforced links with another of Britain’s dubious allies—Saudi Arabia.
May visited Saudi Arabia last Wednesday and was keen to give the impression that she took a hard line on its blockade of neighbouring Yemen.
Yet an official Downing Street statement on May’s meeting with Saudi Arabia’s king Salman bin Abdulaziz was somewhat softer than many headlines implied.
May and bin Abdulaziz “discussed Yemen”.
But they also got down to the real reason for May’s visit—“Saudi Arabia’s long-term stability and success” and confronting their shared rival Iran.
For all Saudi Arabia’s war crimes abroad and human rights abuses at home, Britain has always backed it up.
Friendship with the heavily-armed and oil-rich Saudi Arabia is far too valuable to the US and Britain in a region they’re always fighting to control.
It’s a relationship that goes back to the very beginnings of the modern Saudi Arabian state.
Britain helped Saudi Arabia’s first king, warlord Abdul Aziz Ibn Saud found Saudi Arabia in 1932.
Ibn Saud had conquered land controlled by rival Arab families, partly funded, armed and supported by Britain. He established a ruling dynasty in which power is passed from brother to brother.
Saudi Arabia’s relationship with the West strengthened with the discovery of the largest oil reserves in the world in 1933.
An oil deal with the US provided the state with much-needed finance.
The US and Saudi Arabia worked together to defeat the Arab revolt against colonialism in the 50s and 60s, and the Soviet Union’s invasion of Aghanistan in the 80s.
Saudi Arabia also supported the US invasions of Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003.
Today Saudi Arabia is one of the most repressive regimes in the world and is responsible for bloodshed on an appalling scale across the Middle East.
Some 150 people were executed in Saudi Arabia in 2016—and at least another 100 have been executed this year too.
In Yemen millions are dying in a famine caused by a war that Saudi Arabia is fighting against rebels it claims are backed by Iran. And Britain supplies no small amount of the weapons.
In this year alone Britain has sold more than £1 billion worth of arms to Saudi Arabia, including air-to-air missiles. In fact, Saudi Arabia is Britain’s biggest customer for weaponry.
That’s because arms deals are integral to Britain and Saudi Arabia’s strategic relationship.
Saudi Arabia needs the arms to bolster itself as a major regional power. The British government is desperate to keep selling it those arms to maintain its own standing in the Middle East.
That explains why May’s visit last week was the second this year and why—despite her posturing over Yemen—she’ll always be complicit in Saudi Arabia’s war crimes.
Bullying that backfires
Saudi Arabia’s crown prince Mohammed bin Salman has pursued a series of aggressive confrontations with regional rival Iran over the past year.
But they haven’t all gone his way. Most recently Saudi Arabia appeared to try and engineer a civil war in Lebanon against the Iranian-backed militant group Hizbollah.
Lebanese president Saad Hariri resigned from his post with a surprise speech in the Saudi Arabian capital attacking his coalition partners Hizbollah.
But after disappearing for more than a week, Hariri reappeared in France before returning to Lebanon to “suspend” his resignation. Now it seems he may not resign after all.
Earlier this year Saudi Arabia led other Arab states in a blockade against its neighbour Qatar in a bid to break its links with Iran.
This worried US defence officials, not least because Qatar is home to their largest military base in the Middle East.
What’s more, the blockade has had the opposite effect to what Saudi Arabia intended—pushing Qatar and Iran even closer together.
Meanwhile the war in Yemen, now well into its second bloody year, looks as if it could end in Saudi Arabia’s defeat.
An economy based on oil
One immediate trigger for Saudi Arabia’s actions is Iran’s growing influence as the wars in Syria and Iraq come to an end.
Iran now has strong financial ties to Iraq, and could set up permanent military bases in Syria after propping up dictator Bashar Al-Assad.
A longer term cause is falling oil prices which are fuelling a financial crisis in Saudi Arabia.
Saudi Arabia has a deficit of around £39 billion, and its government has implemented austerity which has led to an unemployment rate of nearly 13 percent.
That makes its competition with Iran even sharper.
Aside from oil, Saudi Arabia’s economy rests on controlling imports to smaller Gulf states, and large-scale investment in the private sectors of other Middle East countries.
Crown prince Mohammed bin Salman (pictured) is driving through changes as part of his “Vision 2030” plan to shift the economy away from oil and towards the private sector.
His recent purge of prominent members of the Saudi royal family is likely linked to this as he consolidates his power.
Trump backs bin Salman
Saudi Arabia is starting to push against the limits of what its Western allies will accept.
The US’s defeat in Iraq has given Saudi Arabia more independence to pursue its own interests in the Middle East.
But parts of the US ruling class are worried that it will cause more instability in the Middle East, further weakening the US’s grip on the region.
Despite this, president Donald Trump has taken the US back towards confrontation with Iran, and seems to impulsively support everything bin Salman does.
That makes the potential for new wars in the Middle East even more explosive.
Funding the rich’s brutality
Saudi Arabia is the headquarters of counter-revolution in the Middle East. Along with other Gulf States it played a major role in the far-reaching privatisation of industries in the Middle East, including in Egypt.
This fuelled the poverty that contributed to the revolutions in 2011. The revolutions represented a challenge to ruling classes across the Middle East, but also threatened Saudi Arabia’s interests directly.
So Saudi Arabia intervened directly to crush the uprising in Bahrain—using weapons supplied by Britain.
And it bankrolled the brutal counter revolution in Egypt led by dictator Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.