Analysis: Britain helped create Saudi Arabia – the Establishment won’t give up their influence without a fight

Ben Wray

The UK Government is under increasing pressure over relations with one of its closest allies

REPORTS that the killers of Jamal Khashoggi, the murdered Saudi journalist, told handlers to “tell your boss” about the assassination provide the closest indication yet that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the ambitious leader of Saudi Arabia, was behind the incident.

The brutal affair has put major pressure on the UK Government’s close allegiance with the Gulf power. But it’s an old relationship, stretching back to the founding of the state in imperial intrigue.

CommonSpace looks at the history and future of the Saudi-British alliance.

The collapse of the Ottoman Empire

Britain had historically backed the Ottoman Empire in the Middle East before the first world war. The tottering Empire, which claimed to be the Caliphate, extending its authority over the entire Muslim world, had reached its peak in the 17th century and was in a state of decomposition by the 20th century. Yet it still controlled much of the Muslim Arab world, including Palestine, Jordan, Syria and Iraq.

This interest in the maintenance of Ottoman influence spanned Britain’s high imperial era, when the Empire used its alliance to fend off rivals like Russia, and maintain an Iron grip on India, its most prized possession.

The first world war terminated this relationship when the Ottomans, for their own reasons, sided with Germany and the axis forces. Britain’s direct military confrontation with the Ottoman Empire proved an unexpected humiliation in the early part of the war.

The UK sought to undermine the Ottoman’s in some of their most important territories by inciting Arab revolt.

Arab Revolt

The British Empire made extravagant promises to Arab leaders, including that a new Caliphate could be established in the Holy cities of Mecca and Medina, the original centres of the Islamic world, and that the new Caliph could be an Arab.

But behind the scenes the British Empire discussed its real intentions. It’s leaders believed that the Arabs would never cohere as an entity, and could therefore be controlled by the British. In the Sykes-Picot Agreement, the British and French foreign minister carved up the rapidly changing geopolitical landscape of the Middle East.

A power struggle ensued within Arab factions and the wartime leadership of the revolt was toppled by Ibn Saud. Saud was in allegiance with an Islamic movement, later called Wahhabism, that demanded a fundamentalist interpretation of Islam, and saw its role as reviving the Muslim world.

The British Empire endorsed Saud as he established his new state with extreme violence. The British state not only funded the creation of the new state, but sent advisers to guide its development.

When the fundamentalist movement turned against Saud in the late twenties, the British rushed in to protect their new ally, crushing the rebellion. But the ethos of Wahabbism was integrated into the state, and in the decades to come its ideas would proliferate around the region.

This allegiance created in blood solidified in the 30s, when Britain helped establish the unified Saudi Arabia. By this time, the British had created a network of states across the region under its own influence.

The impact on the modern region

Much of the chaos of the Middle East today flows from the Sykes-Picot Agreement, and the cynical interests which drove it. 

Arbitrary borders drawn up by the Europeans remain a source of tension to this day. European involvement in the region undermined its economic and social development for imperial extraction. The colonial-settler state in Israel and the displacement of the Palestinians was one of its signature achievements.

And the relationship at the heart of the new Middle East remains of vital importance to the UK and the new global hegemon, the United States.

Especially after the Iranian Revolution in 1979, the West has relied on Saudi Arabia both as a source of oil and as a regional policeman, which acts to re-enforce western interests and crush forces threatening to upset the imperial architecture of the region, as it did with the invasion of Bahrain during the Arab spring, and as it is now doing in Yemen.

But that does not mean the Saudi Arabia is a mere puppet. Prince bin Salman and the new state leadership recognise that the Kingdom’s future stability means internal reform and an extension of regional influence, even if this must be achieved with brutality. The state cannot continue to rely forever on its oil economy, on which it is grossly over-dependent.

The US is also much less reliant on Saudi oil now than it was during the 1970’s oil crisis, when the Saudi’s led OPEC – a coalition of smaill oil producing countries – combined to hike up global prices. Bin Salman’s global geopolitical leverage is restricted by this fact, even if it remains a very important country for the US in the context of the chaotic politics of the MIddle East.

Both Britain and the US encouraged Saudi Arabia and the UAE to take the lead when it comes to war with Yemen, after being burnt by the experience of Iraq and Afghanistan when it comes to direct intervention in the Middle East. But after three years, and a brutal strategy of starving the civilian population in the country, British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo are now trying to rein the Crown Prince in, without detering him from continuing to spend billions on arms purchases from both countries.

The British state and Western axis are therefore in a bind; in an increasingly chaotic Middle East, they need a strong Saudi Arabia as much as ever. But their ally is changing in unpredictable new ways.

Picture courtesy of: Alisdare Hickson