As Brexit draws closer, the tension between upholding British values and maintaining British interests can only growby Peter Salisbury / April 14, 2017 / Leave a comment
A core tension in foreign policy is the tug-of-war between interests and values—between ideals and realpolitik. For some critics of the current British government, the issue is more one of ideals versus retailpolitik.
Press coverage of Prime Minister Theresa May’s first state visit to Saudi Arabia in early April—her second to the Arabian Peninsula in the past six months—was centered around her decision to not wear a headscarf when meeting with a senior member of the royal family. Far less attention was paid to the actual purpose of her visit to the conservative Kingdom, which came just days after the UK officially set “Brexit” in motion.
The government made it clear that May’s trip would see a heavy onus placed on discussions of UK-Saudi security cooperation and trade ties. At front and center of Foreign and Commonwealth Office press releases on the trip were statistics: Saudi Arabia is the UK’s largest trade partner in the Middle East. In 2015, the UK exported £4.67bn of goods to the Kingdom while British businesses earned £1.9bn from services in the country.
With Brexit looming, and questions mounting over the impact leaving the EU will have on British trade, the government would like to see these numbers grow. It is widely believed that it hopes to seal a bilateral trade deal with the Saudi-led Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) that can be rolled out post-Brexit, as proof that the UK is a desirable trading partner. In the meantime, Westminster hopes to unlock a further £30bn in trade with the GCC states in the next five years.
May, the former home secretary, is also keenly focused on British domestic security, and was keen to highlight the importance of intelligence sharing with Saudi Arabia, which has apparently seen a number of terror plots foiled on British soil. “[G]ulf security is our security and Gulf prosperity is our prosperity,” May said in comments published by the BBC.
Less was said on the more problematic aspects of the UK’s relationship with Saudi Arabia, which critics say undermines Britain’s commitment to international liberal order—a rules-based system underpinned by global institutions like the UN and NATO. Late last year, Boris Johnson argued that the world risked returning to a system where “the strong are free to bully or devour the weak,” and…