Two Saudi students looking at book
2030 Vision?  Saudi students. Photo ©

Pixabay, licensed under CCO and adapted from the original.

MArch 2017

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. 

Infographic Chart
Saudi perceptions of the UK in all areas relating to academia, people and culture have risen since the referendum. Ipsos MORI for British Council As Others See Us 2. [Base: 999 participants, 16th – 27th September 2016; Wave 1: 997 participants, 3rd – 14th June 2016].


Research suggests a favourable pre-disposition amongst young Saudis for UK involvement here, and there is especially scope for cooperation in English and vocational training, and entrepreneurial and soft skills

In response, Vision 2030 aims to create "an education system aligned with market needs". The IpsosMORI research suggests a favourable pre-disposition amongst young Saudis for UK involvement here, and there is especially scope for cooperation in English and vocational training, and entrepreneurial and soft skills. Young Saudis in the survey view the British education system as highly attractive - 68% agreeing that its universities are world-leading, and 64% that its education system fosters creativity. The British education sector is therefore a great potential partner. Indeed, last year the UK received almost 10,000 students from Saudi Arabia, a 1% increase on the previous year . 

Vision 2030 also envisages a massive expansion of the kingdom’s currently very limited cultural and leisure activities, with plans to launch dozens of new museums, theme parks, cinemas, events, and festivals. This aims to create a thriving domestic tourism sector generating jobs and income, and boosts awareness of Saudi Arabia’s cultural heritage and identity. However, there is a major skills gap in the cultural and tourism sectors, and a huge need for training programmes and sharing expertise. Again, the research indicates that Saudis view the UK as a suitable potential partner – some 60% agreed that the UK has world-leading arts and cultural institutions – suggesting great opportunities for collaboration. 

Survey results suggest there is still much work to do in improving people-to-people contacts. Only 51% of Saudis agreed that British people were open and welcoming. They also scored the UK lower than other G20 countries – including Turkey, Japan, Canada, Germany, and Indonesia – in terms of trust in its people. These results could reflect a lack of direct contact with the UK – almost 80% of those surveyed had never visited. 

There is much the UK can do to correct this – from ensuring access for young Saudis to our higher education system, to encouraging more young Saudis to learn about life in the UK online or via English language training, to facilitating professional exchanges. Personal experience of a different culture at a young age can be a lifelong and transformative experience – at this time of major change in both countries, such experience could be an effective way to build enduring partnerships between the next generations, to the benefit of both countries.

Alison Baily, Senior Policy Analyst, British Council

See also