Saudi Arabia’s relationship with Europe is an under-discussed feature of its foreign policy. This largely reflects the second-tier status that Riyadh accords to Europe’s influence in the Middle East, together with Saudi strategists’ confusion about the division of labour between the European Union and its member states. Saudi Arabia sees European countries as relevant players on issues that directly affect their national interests, but no more than this. Traditionally drawn to security providers in its alliances with external powers, Saudi Arabia is far more concerned about where the United States and, increasingly, Russia stand on key regional issues.
Riyadh sees its relationship with Europe as based on historical ties that provide it with international prestige and legitimacy – particularly in its bilateral relationships with London and Paris. In this regard, Saudi Arabia’s links to European states provide support for its position on the global stage. Riyadh regards the British and French permanent seats on the United Nations Security Council as particularly important in this. The fact that the United Kingdom and France effectively back Saudi Arabia in its military campaign in Yemen – in the face of widening international condemnation – has encouraged Riyadh to maintain close economic and political relationships with these states. As far as Saudi leaders are concerned, the capacity to provide legitimacy is Europeans’ key asset.
In addition, in times of strained relations between Washington and Riyadh, such as in the aftermath of 9/11, Saudi relations with European governments are useful as an alternate source of Western support. During the presidency of Barack Obama – when Saudi-American relations were particularly strained, partly because the US famously ignored its own red lines to avoid intervention against the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria – a strong Franco-Saudi understanding emerged.
Similarly, Saudi Arabia perceives its defence relationships with European states as useful in diversifying its sources of military equipment and support. This process becomes especially valuable when Washington grows hesitant about supplying military equipment to Saudi Arabia – as it did in 2016. But, while European capitals believe that these military relationships give them a degree of influence in Riyadh, the reality is that Saudi Arabia has been increasingly assertive in its strategic decision-making even where its choices clash with Europe’s interests.
The election of Donald Trump as US president has demonstrated that, when there is a seemingly friendly administration in Washington, Riyadh is willing to sideline its European allies. While French cultural diplomacy appears to be making significant headway in Saudi Arabia’s growing tourism sector, the country has neglected its political and defence ties with France in recent years. This is perhaps unsurprising, given that Riyadh sees Emmanuel Macron, who was elected French president in 2017, as less supportive of Saudi ambitions than his predecessor, François Hollande. At the same time, the Saudi leadership sees the UK’s fixation on internal matters, chiefly Brexit, as an opportunity to enlist its support through renewed promises of investment and trade opportunities. Since the global financial crisis that began in 2008, Riyadh has also perceived several other European countries as targets for investment with political strings attached.
When several European countries have aligned on a position, through the EU or otherwise, their influence has been more noticeable. Members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) regarded the EU as a key partner – due to its economic power – and even an institutional model in the 1990s and the early 2000s. They still largely recognise the EU’s importance as a trading bloc. Locked in a grave political crisis centring on Qatar since 2017, they also regard the EU as a potentially useful technical partner in piecing the GCC back together. And Riyadh sees the value of European expertise in advancing its Vision 2030 agenda.
Geopolitically, however, the picture is more complex. Most Saudi leaders do not take the EU seriously as a geopolitical actor, due to its frequent inability to agree on common foreign or defence policies. Moreover, they have little recent memory of large-scale European diplomatic or military influence in the Gulf or the wider Middle East.
When the EU did play a role in regional geopolitics, such as in the events that followed the Arab uprisings, it did not do so in the way that Saudi Arabia would have hoped. The Iran nuclear deal, the Qatar crisis, and the events surrounding Saad Hariri’s temporary resignation as Lebanese prime minister are all contemporary sources of tension between Riyadh and the EU. In all these cases, the EU has acted as a limited but real obstacle to Riyadh’s agenda.
European criticism of Saudi Arabia’s human rights record has, despite its very limited impact on Saudi behaviour, created difficulties in relations between Riyadh and the EU. The responses to the assassination of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October 2018 has proven to be the exception to this. Many in Riyadh perceive Europeans as having led the international reaction to the murder in a way that exerted considerable political pressure on Saudi Arabia.
To some extent, Riyadh believes that the outcome of its spats with Europeans capitals reflects a power balance in its favour. Recent disputes with Germany and Sweden, in which the countries’ officials publicly criticised Saudi policies, have bolstered the image of Riyadh as engaged in a new foreign policy that complements its nationalist rhetoric. The disputes also reinforced the sense within Saudi Arabia that its economic ties to European states (some of which it temporarily cut following the disagreements with Germany and Sweden) provide it with leverage over Europe. Joint criticism of the Khashoggi killing from France, Germany, and the UK – followed by several European decisions in international human rights forums – somewhat changed this dynamic, raising the prospect of a potential turning point in EU-Saudi relations.
While Riyadh does not see Europeans as central actors, it did not want to lose the support of the big three European players at a time when its broader international stature had already been damaged by wider criticism. Today, it appears that the EU’s divided approach to foreign policy will remain the norm, strengthening Saudi Arabia’s position. This situation will enhance the Saudi leadership’s confidence to forcefully push back against Europe’s criticism and other forms of influence.