As key EU member states quietly resume their strategic partnership with Saudi Arabia, Europe's unified position towards the Kingdom, together with its leverage over it, has begun to fray.
Five months after the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, the European uproar over the murder is fading. Perhaps predictably, key EU member states are now quietly returning to their close, long-standing strategic partnerships with Saudi Arabia. As part of this, London, in particular, is focused on working closely with Riyadh to maintain Saudi support for the political process in Yemen.
European states have remained wary of visibly embracing the de facto Saudi ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Yet few of them are still calling for a credible investigation into the Khashoggi affair
Although this shift is understandable given the severe humanitarian crisis in the war-torn country, European states’ new approach raises questions about their broader strategic positioning on Saudi Arabia. In some respects, the United Kingdom is now reverting to a strategy that, in recent years, has failed to significantly mitigate destabilising Saudi activities in the Middle East – and moving away from a more assertive and united European approach that has proved more constructive, not least in Yemen.
The change in the UK’s position was symbolised by Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt’s visit to Riyadh last week. During the trip, Hunt met Ibrahim al-Assaf, whose recent appointed as foreign minister seemed intended to signal post-Khashoggi reform in Saudi Arabia. “Our strategic partnership w/Saudi Arabia helps us to keep the UK safe, to make progress on diplomatic priorities like Yemen, and to discuss frankly issues of concern”, tweeted Hunt after his visit. He added that they also discussed “human rights reforms and current issues including Khashoggi, women activists and guardianship law”.
This marked a distinct shift away from the assertive position Europe established immediately after Khashoggi’s killing. At that point, the French, German, and UK foreign ministers took the unprecedented step of openly uniting in their demand for “a comprehensive, transparent and credible” investigation into the killing. They stated that Saudi-European relations would be shaped by the nature of Riyadh’s response.
European states have remained wary of visibly embracing the de facto Saudi ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, once again. And they ensured that he did not attend the EU-Arab League summit held in Egypt last month. Yet few of them are still calling for a credible investigation into the Khashoggi affair (even if many European voters are – like the US Congress – not quite so prepared to let the issue go). France and the UK are simultaneously pressing Germany to reverse an arms embargo on Saudi Arabia, a measure that currently prevents the delivery of Eurofighter Typhoon jets built with German parts. Some member states also recently pushed back against an EU decision to place Saudi Arabia on a money-laundering blacklist.
Europe’s softening approach is likely motivated by an acknowledgement that there is now little prospect of a transparent Saudi investigation into the murder and a belief that continued pressure will only alienate Riyadh. While it has arrested 11 Saudi citizens for the crime, Riyadh firmly rejects accusation that the assassination was sanctioned by the Saudi leadership – despite US intelligence assessments to the contrary. Even with persistent international pressure, there is no prospect of a Saudi investigation that would transparently assess these competing claims.
Decreasing European insistence on such an investigation masks what was an impressive moment of coherence on a challenging issue. The vocal unity of Berlin, Paris, and London – backed by wider European support – stood in stark contrast to the traditional quiet discussions with Riyadh on divisive issues, as well as decades of intra-European competition over the perceived strategic and economic gains of close ties with the Saudis. By standing together, Europeans protected themselves from Saudi retribution. Indeed, whereas previous European arms embargos resulted in punitive Saudi measures against Germany, Riyadh responded to Berlin’s post-Khashoggi measures with an attempt to strengthen their ties
Moreover, increased European and US pressure likely played some part in establishing a more restrained Saudi position on Yemen, which involves a push for the Yemeni government to accept the UN-brokered Stockholm Agreement – a deal that provides some hope for ending the country’s devastating conflict. While Europeans have failed to attain a credible investigation into Khashoggi’s killing and have done little to meaningfully oppose the intense domestic crackdown under way in Saudi Arabia, this progress on Yemen is welcome.
Nonetheless, the UK is now pushing on alone again, looking to both enhance its bilateral partnership with Saudi Arabia and to use this relationship to create lasting improvements on the ground in Yemen. The “strategic relationship that the UK has with Saudi Arabia is what allows us to have a huge influence in bringing about peace in Yemen”, said Hunt, signalling a whole-hearted return to the UK’s long-standing policy – which has been less than successful given the longevity and depth of the Yemen crisis. Working towards this end, London and Paris have been willing to openly criticise the German arms embargo, thereby demonstrating that post-Khashoggi European unity on Saudi Arabia is collapsing.
It remains unclear what this approach can achieve when disconnected from unified European power. The UK is effectively counting on its hope that Riyadh has learnt from the Khashoggi affair and wider regional mishaps of recent years. This may be a risky bet, given widespread instability in the Middle East and the Trump administration’s confrontational attitude towards the region (demonstrated by the anti-Iran summit it recently held in Warsaw). Unlike his UK counterpart, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas has indicated that Berlin will not give Riyadh this benefit of the doubt. In response to London’s demands for an end to the arms embargo, he stated that any decision would be “dependent on developments in the Yemen conflict and whether what was agreed in the Stockholm peace talks are implemented”.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.