British Elites and Saudi Arabia (Dr. Neil Partrick)
Dr. Saleh Alkhathlan
Dept. of political science
King Saud University
IDS, Riyadh, May/5/2008
I should first thank the Institute of Diplomatic Studies for organizing this event and special thanks to my friend Dr. Assad for inviting me to join with you in discussing what I really belief is a very important topic.
I should also thank Dr. Neil Patrick for an interesting report, which I enjoyed reading very much. He did an excellent job not only in exploring British elites' perceptions of Saudi Arabia, but in also highlighting the main principles of British Foreign Policy towards Saudi Arabia and the region in general.
When Dr. Assad asked me to comment on the report the first question came to my mind was do perceptions really matter in international relations? Do they have any impact on states' foreign policies? Are we justified in paying even slight attention to policy makers' perceptions let alone those of the political elites in general?
For such questions, there are at least two main answers: The first says no. Perceptions do not matter at all. People who hold this view argue that foreign policy is a matter of rational calculation based on cost-benefit analysis of a state's concrete national interests. There is no room for perceptions or even beliefs.
Those who say yes perceptions matter maintain that perceptions are more important that reality. People in general react to events according to how they perceive them rather than to events per se. When formulating policies policymakers cannot avoid their belief system and perceptions affecting the way they define national interests. That's, according to this view, what explains wrong policies: they result from misreading of events by policy makers due to intervention of their perceptions in the process of reading and interpreting those events.
The findings of Dr. Patrick's report seem to confirm the first view: As far as British-Saudi relations are concerned perceptions do not matter. British elites whether in politics, business or the media all look at Saudi Arabia from a rational point view? The Kingdom is considered as a strategic partner. Trade and economic relations as well as the Kingdom's role in the region are valued highly by all.
Pragmatism is the key word in Saudi-British relations, even for Liberal Democrats who seems to be the most critical not of the kingdom itself, but of their government's relations with Riyadh, especially with regard to the arms deal investigation, and to some extent human rights issues.
The report expects more criticism of the kingdom in the future when the inability of the two main parties to gain a majority forces them to take the Liberal democrat party as a junior partner.
Except for few backbencher MPs and a number of journalists issues of contentions, if they can be classified as such, should not intervene in the serious business between the two countries. But from the over all discussion it seems that criticism is not directed to Saudi Arabia, but to British government's handling of issues related to the Kingdom particularly the Al-yammamah deal.
The issue of corruption related to the deal is not treated, as the report shows, as a problem within Saudi political system. There is no mentioning by any member of the elites of Saudi policymaking or the political culture in general as contributing to the case. No negative images in this regard, at least the report does not show any.
It seems from the report that this issue is more of a problem for local British politics than for relations with the Kingdom. The opposition deals with the investigation from a purely local politics perspective, i.e., trying to exploit it for political gains. All, while stressing the importance of Saudi Arabia, are trying to reopen the investigation only to embarrass the Labor government, Except for the Arms deal and a limited coverage of a number of incidents in Saudi Arabia the report shows that there are no much perceptions or misperceptions as far as Saudi Arabia is concerned.
Amnesty International comes out as the most critic of the Kingdom on the issues of human rights. However, the impact of its criticism is rather limited in both countries. In fact, Amnesty's focus on issues related to the application of the Shari'a laws makes it less credible as compared to HRW, which take the approach of concentrating on mundane violations of human rights.
Notwithstanding the appreciation by all British Elites of the importance of the Kingdom, Dr. Patrick advices Saudis to do more to cultivate British public opinion given that politicians can not ignore voters. He point out that Britons do not know much about the current reform programs in the Kingdom, which if known, would elevate the image of Saudi Arabia, especially now when the Al-yammamah investigation is reopened.
It seems that Dr. Patrick agrees with the conclusion reached by Saudis after 9/11 regarding their country's relations with the US. Since that tragic event and the subsequent bombardment of critique of Saudi Arabia, experts and commentators have called on the government to start people-to-people diplomacy and to engage American elites in the media, think tanks and political circles in general. I am not quite sure if such effort is needed in the UK since the report does not really show critical views of the Kingdom that necessitates such moves.
Now let us try to explain why British elites' perceptions of Saudi Arabia are not influencing their country's policies towards it. I do not think it is a matter of rational calculations, as the report seems to suggest. It is more than that. Without going into details, I would say that for perceptions to matter in states' relations there are prerequisites that do not seem to exist in the case of British-Saudi relations. These are: (1) complexity of the relationship and (2) complexity of the political system of the country whose leaders' perceptions are considered, in this case the UK.
Saudi-British relations are not as complex as we may think, i.e., they are only limited to a small number of issues: military cooperation, trade and joint concerns for a number of regional issues. It is a straightforward relationship and could be described as a contract based relationship. This might not have been the case in the past when Britain had more influence in the Gulf. The policy-making process dealing with such "conventional" issues of foreign relations tends to be clear cut leaving perceptions a small window to intervene.
In contrast, Saudi Arabia has a multi-relationship with the US. This is because American foreign policy in general has always had a social, cultural component, which is gradually becoming a core foreign policy element. Annual reports issued by the States Department and the US Commission on International Religious Freedom on issues of human rights religious freedom testify to that. This gives perceptions more room to influence polices. The more the issues policy-making has to manage, the bigger the likelihood for perceptions and attitudes to shape policies, particularly when such issues are linked to different cultural contexts.
As for the complexity of the political system, I am not in anyway suggesting that British political system is simple. However, as shown in the first pages of the report the nature of the system makes it rather easy for the executive branch and specifically the prime minister to hold almost all authority in the making and implementing of foreign policy. This concentration of policymaking limits the chance for perceptions of members of parliament or of other segments of the elites to affect policies.
It is ironic that in the US where the president is theoretically independent of Congress he cannot ignore views express by members of both houses in Congress on US foreign relations. The mechanism of hearings before Congress committees allows senators and representatives to express their views, shaped by images and perceptions, towards other countries. Moreover, the nature of the American political system makes a wider space for the media and think tanks to influence views of members of the legislative and the executive.
Last, the report several times quotes former British ambassadors to the Kingdom and knowing the tendency of such diplomats to focus on the positive side of the story this might have influenced the report's findings on the immunity of the Kingdom's relations with the UK from perceptual influences.