Alison Baily, British Council Senior Policy Analyst, examines the latest data on Saudi perceptions of the UK and the opportunities it implies for greater mutual cooperation to support Saudi Arabia’s ‘Vision 2030’ reforms and the UK’s post-Brexit future.
A Pragmatic, Strategic Relationship
As the UK prepares for Brexit, expanding relations with traditional allies is a top priority in the government’s strategy for ‘Global Britain’. In December, Theresa May made a landmark visit to the Gulf, building on the UK’s strategic partnership with the region. At the same time Saudi Arabia is pursuing an ambitious reform programme: ‘Vision 2030’, which seeks to shift the Kingdom to a more sustainable economic model in the context of lower oil prices and a booming population. This suggests opportunities for cooperation in education and culture that could strategically boost the UK in the region.
The UK is already in a strong position in the Gulf. It has deep historic ties with the nations of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), and crucial partnerships in security and defence as well as trade and investment.
The GCC countries are located at a vital strategic location at the crossroads between Africa and Asia and key trade routes to Europe. Bilateral trade between the UK and the GCC reached £30 billion in 2015 and the UK sees potential to expand trade further, beyond traditional areas such as defence and oil, to engage with the burgeoning population of young middle class consumers and regional efforts to transition to knowledge-driven economies. It is already exploring the parameters of a new post-Brexit trading relationship.
A long-term ally of the UK, Saudi Arabia is the GCC’s biggest economy and a leading regional power. UK DTI has designated Saudi Arabia as a ‘high-growth market’. The UK is one of the largest foreign investors in the kingdom and some 6,000 British companies export goods and services there.
The relationship of course has its difficulties, especially in policy areas such as human rights, women’s rights, and Yemen. However, dialogue and engagement should be at the forefront of a pragmatic British approach to this vital region. Experience shows us that building engaging in dialogue is the most effective approach for influencing outcomes and communicating our values.
The UK must act quickly and confidently to retain its privileged position. GCC States are becoming more self-sufficient in defence and foreign policy; the bloc’s relations with East Asia are deepening, and countries such as France, Russia, and Turkey are expanding military ties. King Salman is leading a high level trade delegation to East Asia, including China – in what analysts say reflects the new focus.
So how can the UK remain a relevant partner? While security and trade are at the relationship’s heart, there is also huge potential for greater cooperation in education and culture. Indeed, harnessing the UK’s ‘soft power’ assets to engage the region’s new generations will help build the trust and influence needed to underpin long term security and trade relations. They will also ensure the new partnership falls within the framework of a wider strategic alliance, and thus avoids the risk – outlined recently by RUSI Gulf analyst Michael Stephens – of the UK moving towards a purely transactional relationship with the GCC, limited to counter-terrorism and trade.
Scope for Co-operation
Saudi Arabia offers a particular opportunity for partnership in these sectors. New research by IpsosMORI on behalf of the British Council indicates that Saudi young people view the UK as a world leader in education and culture, which are priorities in Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 reform programme.
The programme seeks to shift the economy away from its dependence on oil, and meet the demands of its growing young population for meaningful employment, high-quality education, and more diverse culture and entertainment.
The task ahead is immense – some two-thirds of the population are under 35, almost a third of them unemployed. The state has been the traditional employer, but lower oil prices and more people entering the job market mean those days are over.
Encouraging Saudis into private enterprise is therefore an urgent priority – critical to ensuring fiscal sustainability and potential social unrest. Young Saudis have the enthusiasm to work in more demanding and entrepreneurial roles and to broaden their horizons through international experience. Yet few have what businesses are looking for – some two-thirds of graduates have no technical or vocational skills.