You never listen to me: The European-Saudi relationship after Khashoggi

Policy brief
02 May 2019

The EU has avoided confronting Saudi Arabia on its violations of international law. Now is the time for recalibration: the EU needs a firm, united policy towards the kingdom.

  • The murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in October 2018 is proving a test for the European Union, its member-states and other Western powers. When Muhammad bin Salman (MbS) became Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia in 2017, he promised reform and raised hopes of modernisation and moderation. But Saudi aggression in Yemen, repressive domestic policies and human rights abuses have deflated hopes of positive change.
  • Saudi Arabia has historically been viewed by Western governments as a pillar of stability. However, the Kingdom’s bellicose rhetoric against Iran, engagement in bloody proxy conflicts in the Middle East and continued promotion of a Wahhabi religious doctrine suggest this assessment needs revision.
  • A close relationship is in the interests of both Saudi Arabia and the EU. But the relationship in its current form is unbalanced and unproductive for the EU. European governments turn a blind eye to Saudi violations, afraid of losing security ties and energy supplies. But the dependency is mutual: Saudi Arabia is reliant upon Europe for arms supplies and for investment in its ambitious economic diversification programme; and it will continue to need Europe as an oil export market.
  • The EU has struggled to articulate a common policy towards Saudi Arabia. Member-states, particularly the UK and France, dominate the relationship. They conduct competing bilateral policies, driven by national interests.
  • Europe is failing to respond as a bloc to MbS’s assertive and repressive policies. By following short-term economic and strategic incentives, the EU has drifted far from its values.
  • The EU needs to take a decisive and co-ordinated approach if it wants to promote stability in the region and progress inside Saudi Arabia. Otherwise Saudi Arabia will continue to threaten domestic and international critics, and use its economic muscle to deter international organisations from holding it to account for its poor human rights record.
  • For now, there are already steps that the EU and its member-states can take, such as reaching agreement on restricting arms exports to the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen; deeper dialogue with the Saudis on regional issues; continued support for a full UN-led investigation into the Khashoggi killing; speaking out against the detention – and in some cases torture and killing – of Saudi dissidents; and increasing support for education programmes and cultural initiatives aimed at Saudis.

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