Rethinking EU-Saudi relations

Madawi al-Rasheed (Chatham House via Flickr)

by Eldar Mamedov

The international pressure for accountability for the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi journalist mildly critical of Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MbS), is starting to bear fruit. The EU’s 28 foreign ministers, under the stewardship of the bloc’s foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini, issued a statement on November 19 that signalled their openness to consider targeted sanctions against Saudi Arabia.

Meanwhile, some individual member states went further by starting to implement their own measures. Denmark and Finland joined Germany in halting arms sales to Saudi Arabia (also to the UAE in the case of Finland) over the Yemen war and Khashoggi case. Germany and France also imposed sanctions against 18 Saudi individuals implicated in Khashoggi’s murder, although Paris has not yet announced any intention to suspend arms sales to Riyadh.

These are steps in the right direction. However, they will only have a lasting impact if they serve as a starting point for a broader rethink of the EU-Saudi relations and not simply a momentarily reaction to an outrage before a quiet return to business as usual.

The debate on Saudi Arabia on November 19 in the European Parliament’s sub-committee on human rights provided some important clues for such a rethink. Although, as the name of the committee suggests, it focuses mostly on violations of human rights in the kingdom, one of the speakers, professor Madawi al-Rasheed from the Middle East Centre at the London School of Economics placed the debate in a broader strategic framework for the EU.

Critiquing MbS

Al-Rasheed, who lives in exile in London, is the author of many academic books on Saudi Arabia, among them Muted Modernists, a study of Saudi Islamists and, most recently, a collection of essays on Salman´s Legacy. She has earned a reputation not only as a foremost scholar on the kingdom but also an implacable critic of the MbS regime. In August 2018, she boldly called for a regime change in Saudi Arabia.

The West has a poor track record promoting regime changes, and determining a form of governance in Saudi Arabia (or any other country for that matter) is certainly not a job for the EU. But al-Rasheed´s analysis and advice to EU policymakers deserve to be taken seriously.

First, al-Rasheed is much less optimistic about MbS’s supposed modernization drive than his cheerleaders in the West are. In her assessment, some largely cosmetic reforms, such as allowing cinemas and lifting the driving ban on women, merely mask a worsening repression of any dissent, be it of liberal, Islamist, Shia, or any other inspiration. If that weren’t enough, shocking revelations about the torture of women’s rights activists further shattered whatever remained of MbS’s “progressive” image. Although some superficial steps toward tentative “secularization” may look appealing to Western eyes, these should not be mistaken for any real reform, even in their own narrowly defined terms.

Second, on regional security in the Middle East, MbS was expected to help deliver on two key objectives. He was supposed to broker an Israeli-Palestinian peace by, essentially, buying Palestinian acquiescence to any deal put forward by the United States and Israel. And he was going to roll back Iran´s influence in the region. These objectives were not only pursued by the Trump administration, but were also shared by some in the EU, particularly in British and French foreign policy establishments (they just disagreed with United States on the wisdom of abandoning the nuclear deal with Iran).

Yet this strategy proved to be a costly failure. King Salman reportedly blocked any substantial Saudi steps on the Israel-Palestine “peace” track. As to countering Iranian influence, Saudi meddling in Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen only stoked the flames of conflict, which eventually benefited Iran. And Europe is vulnerable to the risk of refugee flows that instability in the Middle East engenders.

Third, al-Rasheed disputed the notion that Saudi Arabia is a reliable partner in counter-terrorism cooperation by pointing to Wahhabism, the official creed of the kingdom, as the inspiration for most of the jihadist violence in the world. Her case is backed by the latest report of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), an inter-governmental watchdog, which accused Saudi Arabia of failing to address adequately the financing of international terrorism.

Fourth, the rule of MbS poses a new kind of security threat to the EU: the growing repression at home drives more Saudi dissidents into exile. Khashoggi’s murder may not have taken place on EU soil, but if it goes unpunished, what would stop the regime from undertaking similar actions in London, Paris, or Madrid, much as Russia’s Vladimir Putin sends agents to liquidate his foes in the West?

The EU Strategy

Al-Rasheed is far from advocating the severance of diplomatic and other ties between the EU and Saudi Arabia. Instead, she recommends working for the marginalization of MbS and pushing for a constitutional monarchy in Saudi Arabia.

For that, she dismisses concerns that Saudi Arabia would unravel if MbS got pushed to the side.  Indeed, his demotion would not be an unprecedented event in Saudi history. The current King Salman has already dismissed two crown princes: Prince Muqreen and Prince Mohammad Bin Nayef. In 1964, the royal family and ulema even forced then-King Saud bin Abdulaziz to abdicate and go into exile. Yet, these perturbations left the stability of the kingdom largely intact, even if the geopolitical environment was then arguably more challenging than now. Pan-Arabist revolutionary Egypt under Gamal Abdel Nasser, backed by the Soviet superpower, constantly agitated against the “reactionary” Saudi monarchy. Today, Saudi Arabia has a business-like relationship with that superpower’s successor—Russia—and the “revolutionary” regime of the day, Iran, is non-Arab, weakened by the sanctions, devoid of a powerful backer, and beset with myriad of internal problems.

Many in the EU would agree with Al-Rasheed’s analysis. However, absent Saudi-originated changes in the succession order, EU governments are likely to tread carefully in their relations with the kingdom. They see MbS as someone they have to do business with, like it or not, and possibly for a long time to come. But even within these constraints, the examples of Germany, Sweden, Denmark, and Finland show that a more realistic approach to relations with Saudi Arabia is feasible. The EU may not push outright for a constitutional monarchy, as al-Rasheed suggests, but it can make it clear that, from now on, the worst excesses of the Saudi royals, such as the war in Yemen, the murders of dissidents, and domestic repression, are going to be sanctioned. And, of course, the unity of all member states is crucial to make these measures effective.

This article reflects the personal views of the author and not necessarily the opinions of the European Parliament.

Eldar Mamedov

Eldar Mamedov has degrees from the University of Latvia and the Diplomatic School in Madrid, Spain. He has worked in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Latvia and as a diplomat in Latvian embassies in Washington D.C. and Madrid. Since 2007, Mamedov has served as a political adviser for the social-democrats in the Foreign Affairs Committee of the European Parliament (EP) and is in charge of the EP delegations for inter-parliamentary relations with Iran, Iraq, the Arabian Peninsula, and Mashreq.



  1. Saudi is a pillar of destabilizing ‘Jihadi’ movement which is needed by the US to mobilize its military across the world and keep its military industry motorist its economy. However, for EU the situation is much different, the resulted extremism wave from joint US-Saudi hits EU in proximity. EU had realized the need for departure from US camp toward a reconciliation with Russia which is now similarly liberal compared to US. That’s what US is trying to stop by every mean like pushing on Ukraine to heighten the tension to keep EU in their camp. Now remaining in US camp would only increase EU costs in benefit of US. A peace with Russia and Iran is what could support both economical and security concerns of the EU and this is what US actively tries to distort.

  2. EU (minus France and UK) by its soft sanctions against military needs of Saudi is only throwing some candies over to Trump in order to get him off of their back regarding EU’s trades with Iran and also for lessening the Trump’s negative pressures on financing of NATO. Trump will be happy and Bragg about selling more arms to Saudi to offset the losses from EU!

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