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Britain’s Enduring Relationship with Saudi Arabia

When answering his critics following a defeat to Crystal Palace in 2015, Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho responded with the Portuguese proverb ‘The dogs bark but the caravan moves on’.  It was a difficult time for Mourinho whose reputation was beginning to tarnish. But he was confident in his own abilities and dismissive of those who thought otherwise.  The proverb simply reflects inexorable progress in the face of detractors.  Britain’s relationship with Saudi Arabia, and specifically those efforts to support the nation’s aerospace industry and boost the economy through arms exports, has generated its fair share of barking dogs.  For Mourinho, it was his seemingly boundless self-belief.  For the United Kingdom, national security has been the overriding factor that has allowed our particular caravan to carry on its journey.

The heavy lifting required to achieve closer integration falls to the triumvirate of the Ministry of Defence, the Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office, and the Department for International Trade.  When it comes Saudi Arabia, the 2006 deliberations of the Serious Fraud Office (SFO) and the Attorney General also have an important role to play.  It is a well-coordinated and focused effort across Government designed to give the commercial sector the freedom of action they require to ensure security and deliver prosperity.   

Unpalatable to some, a marriage of inconvenience to others, the UK-Saudi relationship should be seen as a model of how Government integration can deliver both security and prosperity.  Both are issues  that cannot be ignored in today’s volatile and unpredictable world.   This article will examine the UK-Saudi relationship, specifically the efforts to support the nation’s aerospace industry and boost the economy through arms exports.1

‘The Pariah that they are’ – the Importance of a Strategic Partner

Britain is not alone in its determination to keep the Saudi caravan rolling along.  There are clear tensions in the United States where President Biden’s ‘recalibration’ towards Saudi Arabia is a far cry from candidate Biden’s rhetoric on the campaign trail when he vowed to make them ‘the pariah that they are.  It is the view of Frederick Kempe, President of the Atlantic Council, that when it comes to Saudi Arabia, ‘it is better to have a flawed or deeply flawed ally than an adversary’.  He is keen to emphasise that the return of Great Power competition means Saudi Arabia could turn to Russia or China should the West abandon its support.  Deeply flawed or not, the 2018 UK Saudi Arabia Joint Communique is a clear sign of how the UK intends to maintain its relationship with the Kingdom.  

Fusion – Three Years and Counting

The 2018 National Security Capability Review is a useful place to remind ourselves of the UK’s National Security Objectives.  Number one is to protect our people (at home, in our overseas territories and abroad, and to protect our territory, economic security, infrastructure and way of life).   Number two is to project our global influence – reducing the likelihood of threats materialising and affecting the UK, our interests, and those of our allies and partners.  National Security Objective Three is to promote our prosperity – seizing opportunities, working innovatively and supporting UK industry.2  So there we have it, economic security, threats against the UK and supporting UK industry are the building blocks that form the foundations of the UK’s seemingly unbreakable relationship with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. 

When Fusion Gives Way to Integration

The latest stop on the UK’s comprehensive/integrated journey came in March 2021 with the publication of the Integrated Review.  The Review builds on Fusion Doctrine first seen in 2018 and calls for deeper integration across Government.  Delivering a more integrated approach will be achieved by bringing together defence, diplomacy, development, intelligence and security, trade, and aspects of domestic policy in pursuit of cross-government, national objectives.3

Pertinent to the UK/Saudi relationship, the recent Integrated Review also gives a commitment to upholding ‘universal human rights, the rule of law, free speech and fairness and equality’, describing them as ‘essential’ values that will continue to guide all aspects of the UK’s national security and international policy.  Read on one more page however, and the Review provides the caveat that ‘at the same time, our approach will be realistic and adapted to circumstances’.4 The words may differ slightly from review to review but the message is the same; the Government continues to provide that freedom of movement required for the caravan to continue on its way.

Khashoggi – when Dodging a Bullet is not the same as Ducking the Issue

The UK’s relationship with Saudi Arabia has not been perfectly smooth and the UK has not remained silent at every turn.  In 2019, Foreign Office Minister Alan Duncan called the mass execution of 37 mainly Shiah Muslims as ‘repulsive’ and ‘utterly unacceptable in the modern world’.  Britain’s response to the murder of Khashoggi was not quite so stinging.  This is despite the fact that the CIA concluded that the operation was approved at the highest levels  by Mohammed bin Salaman (MBS)For anyone who felt that the UK had dodged a multi-million-pound export-laden bullet by ignoring MBS’ involvement, Dominic Raab was able to clarify that situation.  He told Parliament that the Government had not ducked the issue, and stressed the point that even the United States had not brought any sanctions to bear against MBS.  Case closed as they say.

This is integration at its best; reinforcing the Government’s prosperity agenda and showing resolute support to key regional and global partners.  Fred Ryan, publisher of Khashoggi’s paper the Washington Post said ‘despots who offer momentarily strategic value’ might be given  ‘one free murder pass’.  The UK Government clearly weighed up the value of its economic relationship with the Kingdom and decided to issue that free pass.  Despite the barking dogs, the caravan has moved on.

Bahrain – Saudi Arabia’s Little Cousin

Although it precludes the formal arrival of Fusion doctrine, it is perhaps worth taking a brief stroll down the rabbit hole that is Bahrain.  Saudi Arabia presents the UK Government with the troublesome issues of human rights and executions.  In 2011, the relationship with, and attitude towards, Bahrain had to take into account the country’s brief encounter with the Arab Spring.  Speaking at Chatham House in September that year, the then International Development Secretary Andrew Mitchell said that it was ‘morally right’ for the United Kingdom to help people across the Arab region to ‘participate in the governance of their countries and to develop the systems and institutions which will create functioning and democratic states’.  In addition to having a moral obligation to help, he also said that it was in ‘our national interests’ to do so.

It seems the United States took a far more realistic view. President Barack Obama said of the events in 2011 that ‘the Bahraini regime was going to force us to make a choice’ and that when push came to shove, the United States ‘couldn’t afford to risk our strategic position in the Middle East’.5  The Arab Spring may have sparked an uprising in Bahrain but it is clear that Mitchell’s view of the ‘national interest’ was misplaced to the point of being naïve.  Compare his view of what was in the ‘national interest’ to that of Philip Hammond’s who four years later, described the construction of a permanent naval base at Mina Salman port, as a ‘strategic necessity’.  A  reward, if you like, for Britain’s silence on human rights.

Daniel Kawczynski MP of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee said that Bahrain was ‘an important strategic country and we will not allow anybody to destabilise it in any way’.  Given Britain’s Janus-like approach to the region, it would have been useful if Kawczynski had clarified whether such destabilisation was emanating from Iran or Bahrain’s fledgling democracy movement.  For the United States, staying close to Saudi Arabia trumped defending Bahrain’s democracy movement.  It seems Britain has also made a similar choice – it would just prefer not to talk about it.  As far as Bahrain is concerned, the dogs had barely barked.

Human Rights versus Trade

We need to balance Raab’s Matrix-like ability to dodge bullets over the Khashoggi killing with his comments made in March this year when he said that the UK was missing out on trade with future growth markets if we only dealt with those countries that met the European Convention on Human Rights.  His remarks, made as part of a departmental video call, are certainly a step in the right direction if the UK’s Integrated approach is to make any meaningful progress towards National Security Objective 3.  It must be reassuring for the team working at the UK Defence and Security Exports  organisation that the Foreign Secretary is providing such direction and guidance.  The Government clearly has this covered, what about the military?

Crossways – Deny Everything Baldrick

We know that British troops have deployed to Saudi Arabia on at least 2 occasions in recent years.  A short-term training team (STT), under the name Operation Crossways, deployed to Saudi Arabia in 2017 to train elements of the Saudi Army in irregular warfare.  It is unclear whether this was a one-off or an enduring commitment.  The efforts and contributions of the Army’s STTs are normally lauded and publicised as being a force for good valuable upstream engagement.  Operation ORBITAL has been capacity building with the Ukrainian Army since 2015, and hundreds of park rangers in Zambia and Malawi have been trained in counter-poaching techniques.  Crossways should have been up there as a further example of how we are supporting our strategic partner.

Giraffes Under the Radar?

Official MOD channels did at least acknowledge that the UK had deployed Giraffe Radars to the Kingdom following the Houthi rebels attacks on Saudi oil fields in September 2019 attacks.  Such a commitment deserves far more recognition than two and a half lines on page 49 of the 2019-20 MOD Annual Report.  

We can also include the efforts of the Stabilisation Unit into the mix.  Their 2019 Riyadh workshop with the Saudi Development and Reconstruction Program for Yemen discussed, amongst other things, the U.K.’s fusion doctrine and lessons learned from Iraq and Afghanistan.  All told, this level of commitment may well reflect our level of arms sales or activity within the land domain, but it is a pitiful level of support for a strategic partner.

The RAF’s Whole Force Approach

For some time now, the RAF has been a proponent of the whole force approach and we can see this in their support to Saudi Arabia.  Aside from the UK-based ground and air training, three RAF personnel are employed as liaison officers in the Saudi Air Operations Centre.  In March 2019, Minister for the Armed Forces, Mark Lancaster, confirmed that there were also RAF personnel on secondment to BAE Systems who ‘provided routine engineering support’ to the Royal Saudi Air Force (RSAF), including ‘aircraft engaged in operations in Yemen’.6 

Another example of an integrated approach between Government and the commercial sector is the MOD providing a stop off and basing facilities for the BAE Systems weekly freight schedule at RAF Akrotiri before it makes its way to the Saudi airbase at Ta’if.  RAF Akrotiri has, after all, a long history of supporting operations in the Middle East. 

BAE Systems – Doing the Heavy Lifting

The final, and perhaps most important link in the UK-Saudi chain is made by BAE Systems.  The company has been at the heart of Britain’s export drive since Al Yamamah and is the UK’s prime contractor delivering, in the words of its 2019 Annual Report, operational capability support to the RSAF.

According to a former BAE employee, British contractors carry out almost all the tasks needed to fight the air war.  Without BAE support it was felt that the RSAF would have to cease operations after 7-14 days.  This is a big claim but clearly the level of support provided by BAE is significant if not critical.  The use British contractors brings two things to the party: mass and separation.  It is unlikely that the RAF could spare over 6000 personnel to serve in the Kingdom and keeping the uniformed presence to an absolute minimum at least tries to give the impression that Great Britain plc is not involved in the war in Yemen. 

Involvement or not, since 2015, the UK has licensed £4.7 billion of arms exports to Saudi ArabiaAccording to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute Arms Transfer Database, the UK was the second-largest exporter of arms to Saudi Arabia and accounted for around 25% of arms imports to the Kingdom.  This is economic success writ large, and something that could only have been brought about by a well-coordinated and integrated approach, but it hasn’t always been plain sailing.

Al Yamamah – The Dove of Peace?

The UK has a long history of exporting arms and weapons to the Kingdom who took receipt of Lightning and Strikemaster aircraft in the 1960s.  Twenty years later, it was Germany’s decision to lift its ban on Tornado sales outside of NATO that gave the UK the chance it needed.  The Al Yamamah (the Dove) contract was signed in 1985 and committed the UK ‘to develop and sustain a technologically advanced military force and supporting infrastructure in Saudi Arabia’.  BAE would be the prime UK contractor; the Saudis would pay for the deal in oil.  The Al Yamamah series of arms deals have been described as ‘the biggest sale of anything by anyone’.  The initial contract contained no conditions relating to human rights, but it did achieve another important objective, which was to prevent the Saudis from turning to the French for their Mirages.  The fight to uphold national security and promote prosperity runs long and deep.

When the Dove nearly became a Dodo

Cross-government action in the national interest is nothing new and this is certainly the case in the UK/Saudi Arabia relationship.  In 2003 it was reported that BAE had used a £20million slush fund to bribe Saudi officials.  The SFO launched its investigation in 2004 but it was to come to naught.  

In December 2006, The Daily Telegraph reported that the Saudi Government were outraged with the SFO investigation and were threatening to cancel an impending order for 78 Typhoons and had given the UK Government 10 days to halt the investigation or else ‘the kingdom’s arms business will be taken elsewhere’.7  

Days later, the SFO announced it was discontinuing its inquiry, stating they had elected to balance the rule of law against wider public interest.  The SFO had, it seems, ignored the threat to pull the Typhoon contact.  In the words of the Attorney General, the investigation had been discontinued so as not to cause serious damage to UK/Saudi security, intelligence and diplomatic cooperation.  Less than two years later, the Saudi Government signed a MOU to purchase another batch of 48 Typhoon aircraft.  Even when confronted with some rather noisy dogs, the caravan continued its relentless journey.

That Court of Appeal thing

What better way of demonstrating Britain’s intent to maintain our special relationship than for the Secretary of State for International Trade Liz Truss to announce the recommencement of arms exports?  This July 2020 announcement followed the 2019 Court of Appeal ban on granting new licenses.  The Secretary of State said this was only possible because there was no longer a ‘clear risk’ that the export of British arms and military equipment to Saudi Arabia could be used in a serious violation of International Humanitarian Law.  

Within months of the announcement, over 1 billion pounds of military equipment and weapons had been exported to the Kingdom.  A spokesperson for the Campaign Against the Arms Trade said the resumption of exports showed ‘the UK Government’s determination to keep supplying arms at any cost’.  As the then Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said in 2019: the ‘Yemen crisis would not be stopped’ by halting in UK arms exports. 

The decision to overturn the Court of Appeal ban was not without its critics.  John Deverell and Molly Mulready wrote a stinging critique of the Government’s actions, citing military and legal reasons why the exports had to stop.  The series of legal challenges are the sternest test faced by the Government.  The brief pause in sales, coupled with the Government’s response to the Khashoggi killing have, it seems, meant that the 2018 Memorandum to purchase 48 more Typhoons remains in place.  Further proof that only an integrated and coordinated approach can prevent the barking dogs from becoming a serious threat rather than merely annoying.

Is the Typhoon Jet Running out of Steam?

The Typhoon is a highly capable aircraft that carries an impressive range of complex weapons.  In terms of a UK prosperity agenda, BAE have said the Typhoon exports had returned more than double the UK Government’s £12Bn investment.  However, the Typhoon is, along with other aircraft of a certain age, operating in an increasingly 5th generation world.  The UK has no 5th generation aircraft of its own and will have to Pass Go and move straight to the 6th generation with Tempest and loyal wing programmes such as Mosquito.

‘Now I Believe that there are Unicorns’8

For 6th generation platforms, it is the AI-led decision-making processor that will be the dominant feature, rather than the range, speed or payload of the platform itself.  British built 6th generation aircraft destined for the export market will have to have a set of AI algorithms and databases that meet the customer’s needs.  If the likes of Tempest or Mosquito use mission management systems that inhibit certain behaviours and take a Western view on rules of engagement and targeting, then the UK may be ruling itself out of some key export markets.  The 2021 Defence Command Paper makes a bold statement when it promises to develop and deploy technology based on democratic values.9 It will be interesting to see how this approach stands up against the all-consuming ‘national interest’ when the UK aerospace export sector goes 6th Generation.   The evidence from the UK/Saudi relationship suggests only one direction of travel.


Despite the UK’s long-standing relationship with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, it has been an increasingly challenging journey, one not helped by Saudi’s involvement in the war in Yemen since 2105.  By integrating and coordinating various offices of state, the UK Government has successfully provided the private sector the freedom of manoeuvre it needs to sell arms and military aid.  Although the MOD has several personnel advising the KSA, it is the use of private contractors that allow the UK to operate at range; not taking part in the war in Yemen but facilitating the Kingdom to continue its Iran-facing operations.  This is a potent and effective mix and one that demonstrates that the UK has, at least in the case of Saudi Arabia and the war in Yemen, achieved a truly integrated approach and certainly a model for the future.  Perhaps this is a model that is already being reshaped? Prime Minister’s Johnson’s response to the Liaison Committee following the sale of Britain’s largest chip-making plant, Newport Wafer Fab, to a Chinese firm was simply that he did ‘not want anti-China spirit to pitchfork away every investment from China in this country.’  If you were wondering, Mourinho was sacked by Chelsea at the end of 2015.  Sometimes the dogs win – don’t be like Jose. 

Phil Clare

Phil Clare is a former RAF Logistics Officer. He has over 30 years experience of single and joint service environments, as well as operational experience that spans Op GRANBY to HERRICK.



  1. This paper does not include the UK’s approach to attracting inward investment from overseas investors, be that from the Gulf states or from elsewhere.
  2. National Security and Capability Review. Crown Copyright 2018, 19.
  3. Global Britain in a competitive age – The Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy, HMSO July 2021, 39.
  4. ibid, 13-14
  5. Barack Obama, A Promised Land, Penguin Books Limited, 2021, Chapter 36 (Audible 37:52).
  6. A Guardian report on 16 June 2019 estimated there were 80 RAF personnel seconded in this manner.
  7. Daily Telegraph, Halt inquiry or we cancel Eurofighters, 1 December 2006.
  8. The Tempest, William Shakespeare, Scene iii, Act iii.
  9. Defence in a Competitive Age, March 2021. HMSO, 8.

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