June was a turbulent month in the world of international affairs. A drone was shot down in international airspace, protests ensued following the arrest and detention of an investigative journalist, and the state was found responsible for the extrajudicial murder of a journalist by the UN. The countries implicated? Iran, Russia and Saudi Arabia.
As these examples show, these three regimes share a host of unsavoury characteristics: they fail to adhere to international laws and treaties, they spread mis- and disinformation to gain legitimacy domestically, and their rulers enjoy engaging in strongman politics.
Yet although they’ve used much the same approach, they have experienced vastly different geopolitical outcomes: Saudi Arabia is a longstanding and close ally of the US and the UK, whereas Iran and Russia belong to the doomed axis of evil.
How the British public see it
The irony, however, is that members of the British public see little difference between these countries. According to our latest polling data, conducted in partnership with Ipsos MORI, half of the British public think the UK should only trade with countries that have a good human rights record, even if this harms the economy.
As if that weren’t enough food for thought, it also reveals a perception among the public globally, that Iran, Russia and Saudi Arabia are mainly using their influence for bad. As the graph below shows, most Britons believe Iran, Russia and Saudi Arabia mostly use their influence for bad, rather than good.
Britons are far less likely than people from other countries to view these countries as mostly using their influence for good: 3% think so in the case of Iran, 4% in the case of Russia, and 4% in the case of Saudi Arabia.
The data also shows a downwards trend: the British public believe that Iran (32%), Russia (42%) and Saudi Arabia (34%) are all less likely to use their influence for good today compared with ten years ago. This means the British public perceive Iran, Russia and Saudi Arabia to be equally bad. Yet the UK is friends with one, and foes with the two others.
Saudi Arabia has an appalling track record for human rights. Despite some progress on social and economic reforms, it continues to jail and execute activists, suppress freedom of speech and silence a free press by the harassment, kidnap and murder of journalists. It also uses torture as a punishment, discriminates against women, and has made protesting illegal – the list goes on. Clearly, it doesn’t share the UK’s values of liberal democracy and respect for human rights.
And yet, Saudi Arabia continues to be a main pillar of the UK government’s foreign policy in the Middle East. This is despite research showing that the UK is gaining little from its relationship with Saudi Arabia, and is instead incurring damage to its reputation because of that close relationship. In contrast, diplomatic relations with Russia hit a low point following the Novichok attack in Salisbury in October 2018, and UK engagement with Iran remains limited.
Cutting all ties with Saudi Arabia would be foolish for the UK, just as it would be equally foolish to simply trust that the government in Tehran will not seek to develop a nuclear weapon only because it says it won’t.
This leaves a key question about how the UK, and other countries, can pursue a more calibrated form of foreign policy. This must involve better assessments on the benefits and costs of cooperation with particular countries.
Saudi Arabia is a perfect case study for the trade-offs and challenges that this involves, and of the consequences when the costs begin to outweigh the benefits – in the eyes of the public, too. In June, the Court of Appeal ruled that the British government’s approval of arms sales to Saudi Arabia were unlawful while that country is leading a coalition engaged in conflict in Yemen. This blow to the UK government and defence industry was only the latest example of the costs outweighing the benefits.
Context is crucial, and all of this is happening at a time when tensions are flaring up in the Middle East and the Kremlin is seeking to expand its influence in Eastern Europe. The British government’s tendency will likely be to buckle down, link arms and try its best to hold the front line with traditional allies – despite their condemnable behaviour. But actually, if there ever were a time for the UK government to recalibrate its bilateral relationships, this should be it.