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.

When the 31-year old Muhammad bin Salman (known colloquially as MbS) became Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia in 2017, he promised reform and modernisation. The EU and US bought into his narrative, believing that MbS was serious about providing his subjects with more social rights. Both powers have always preferred to influence Saudi behaviour via dialogue rather than sanctioning the kingdom for its violations. European governments describe the relationship as a ‘strategic partnership’, given Europe’s important economic ties with Saudi Arabia and the need for security co-operation between the two sides to counter Islamist violence and Iran’s regional expansionism. 

But the Saudi state’s aggression in Yemen, its persecution of journalists and its human rights abuses are challenging the West’s approach to the kingdom and undermining Western goals in the broader region. The recent murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul, and the likely involvement of the Crown Prince himself, illustrates that – despite MbS’s promises of modernisation – the apparatus of Saudi state repression is alive and well. On the foreign policy front, MbS’s aggressive, erratic and counter-productive behaviour has serious consequences for Europe’s own security and promotion of regional stability.

Each Saudi transgression forces Western governments at least to make a show of re-evaluating the relationship, even if little changes in practice. The Khashoggi affair has further tested European willingness to turn a blind eye to Saudi behaviour, at home and abroad.

“You never listen to me”, Macron lamented during an exchange with the Crown Prince on the fringes of the G20 summit in December 2018. This intransigence from the Saudis is unsurprising. EU policy towards Saudi Arabia is weak and inhibited by national interests; this undermines the EU’s credibility and its foreign policy objectives in the region. The EU needs to take a decisive and co-ordinated approach if it wants to promote stability in the Middle East and preserve its credibility.

This policy brief argues that EU policy should respond to the destabilising effect of MbS’s adventurism and the ultra-conservative Saudi Wahhabi doctrine, rather than restate traditional arguments about the benefits of trade and security co-operation. It sets out Saudi Arabia’s domestic and regional situation, establishing the motivations behind the kingdom’s repressive domestic policy and aggressive foreign policy. The brief maps the state of European-Saudi relations, arguing that the relationship is skewed in favour of Saudi Arabia, despite the kingdom’s significant dependencies on Europe. It shows the dominance of the member-states and the weak role played by the EU institutions. The brief then lays out the steps that the EU and its member-states should take to create a coherent strategy towards Saudi Arabia: by achieving more convergence on European arms export policy for the kingdom, engaging in deeper dialogue on regional issues, supporting a UN-led investigation into the murder of Jamal Khashoggi and increasing support for Saudi activists, as well as for cultural and education projects.

Repression not reform: Inside Saudi Arabia

The Saudi monarch possesses absolute executive, legislative and judicial power, and appoints the Consultative Council, an advisory body. There are no general elections, only municipal ones. For two generations the kingdom was ruled by royal coalitions, with princes seeking consensus between themselves, resulting in a degree of checks and balances on decision-making, as well as ensuring a degree of continuity and predictability. But in June 2017, King Salman appointed MbS as Crown Prince and defence minister. The Crown Prince set about consolidating his power, replacing the tradition of royal consensus with a more personalised form of autocracy. A few months after his appointment, MbS began a crackdown on ‘corruption’. This involved the arrest and detention of over 200 business figures and princes in the Riyadh Ritz Carlton Hotel and others without charge and using force in some cases, extracting £72 billion from those held.1 

Upon his appointment, MbS immediately embarked on a public relations drive in the US, Europe and Asia. As part of this attempt to alter the kingdom’s reputation, he introduced and promoted social reforms, under the guidance of several US consultancy firms such as McKinsey. In June 2018, women were granted the right to drive; the power of the mutawa’a (the Saudi religious police) has been reduced; and live music concerts have been authorised for the first time in 25 years.
But incremental social reforms have been coupled with a closing down of the political space. The Saudi government has yet to release women’s rights activists who campaigned for the lifting of the driving ban. Meanwhile, the male guardianship system – whereby women require the approval of a male relative to travel, marry or study – remains in place.

In October 2018, Jamal Khashoggi, a Washington Post journalist and Saudi dissident, was strangled and then dismembered using a bone-saw at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. New evidence suggests his remains were burned in an oven at the Saudi consul’s home. Khashoggi’s brutal murder focused international attention on the regime’s continued human rights abuses, including the harassment, imprisonment and torture of activists, journalists, and religious scholars; extensive use of the death penalty; and persecution of the Shia minority.2 US intelligence reports suggest that Khashoggi’s murder was part of a broader crackdown on dissent abroad: a rapid ‘intervention’ team appears to have completed over a dozen missions since 2017 in which Saudi dissidents were put under surveillance, detained, tortured and forcibly repatriated to Saudi Arabia from other Arab countries. The team was authorised by MbS and a senior aide, and a Saudi intelligence officer led field operations.3 

Regional rivalries: Saudi Arabia and Iran

Since the Iranian revolution in 1979 and the foundation of a Shia Islamic Republic, Iran has been locked in confrontation with Saudi Arabia, a Sunni monarchy. Iran threatens Saudi Arabia’s status as leader of the Muslim world. The rivalry is ethnic (Persian versus Arab), sectarian (Shia versus Sunni) and ideological (republic versus monarchy). The two countries have poured arms, money and proxy forces into conflicts across the region to assert dominance. Iran is winning: by creating forces along sectarian lines, it has achieved a path of unbroken territorial control through Lebanon, Syria and Iraq.

Syria became a theatre for the rivalry in 2015. The country descended into a full-blown civil war in 2011 after President Bashar al-Assad brutally cracked down on pro-democracy protesters. Iran had long been an ally of Syria, since it offered a route between Iran and its strongest proxy force – the militant group Hezbollah in Lebanon. In 2015, when Assad was on the verge of being deposed, foreign powers stepped into the conflict. Iran backed Assad, sending in Islamist Shia militia, from Hezbollah in Lebanon, and from Afghanistan and Pakistan, as well as officers from its own Quds force to choreograph the war and train the Syrian military.4 Saudi Arabia backed the Syrian rebels, sending arms and money to Sunni Islamist fighters and radical Sunni groups. The intervention from Iran (with help from Russia) saved Assad. Now it is Iran, Russia and Turkey that take decisions on the ground in Syria – not the Saudis.

In 2015, MbS launched a military intervention in Yemen. The Houthis, a Shiite tribal group, had taken control of the country’s capital, Sana’a, and forced the resignation of President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi and his government – which had been backed by the Saudis. Saudi Arabia presented the incursion as necessary to control Iranian influence on the Arabian Peninsula, exaggerating the extent of Iranian support for the Houthis.5 The Saudis formed a coalition of nine other Sunni Arab countries: the UAE, Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, Jordan, Sudan, Egypt, Morocco and Senegal.6 The coalition wants to restore the Hadi government, and to this end the countries provide financial and military support to the Yemeni army and proxy armed groups (although there are divergences in aims: the UAE is more focused on supporting southern secessionist forces, for example). The coalition receives external support from the US, UK and France, which provide arms, military equipment and training. Countries in the Horn of Africa have also lent support to the coalition. Eritrea, Somalia and Djibouti have allowed the coalition to use their infrastructure – airspace, airports and ports – and there are reports that Eritrea and Somalia may have deployed troops.7

The Saudi-backed coalition is the main cause of civilian casualties in Yemen.8 Three quarters of all Yemenis, 22 million people, need humanitarian aid or protection from the violence. Around 2 million people are displaced.9 The country is facing the world’s worst cholera outbreak. The last available UN casualty figures were 10,000 civilians killed and 40,000 wounded as of January 2017,10 though the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (ACLED) now puts the death toll at 67,600.11 The lawfulness of Saudi activity in Yemen is discussed in the final section of this paper.

Like Syria, Yemen has been a strategic failure for the Saudis. Before 2015, Saudi Arabia had hardly ever intervened militarily beyond its borders, preferring to give financial backing to local proxies. MbS has used the conflict in Yemen to forge a sense of militarised nationalism in Saudi Arabia.13 Now, Saudi Arabia finds itself consumed by an expensive war, costing it over $100 billion so far,14 with its international reputation tarnished. The kingdom is a long way from eradicating Iranian influence in Yemen. Adversity has only strengthened the Houthis and created new openings for Iran to increase its influence at minimal cost: the Houthis’ missile technology has improved with the help of Iran, and its militias launch rockets into Saudi territory and at Saudi oil tankers in the Bab el-Mandeb Strait almost daily. This security threat, combined with the high rhetorical stakes, makes it difficult for MbS to withdraw. So Saudi Arabia still clings to hope of a military victory, despite all evidence that it is out of reach.

Saudi Arabia is the dominant member of the Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC), a political and economic partnership of six countries in the Arabian Peninsula.15 The GCC was set up in 1981, partly at least in response to the Iranian revolution and a Shia rebellion in Saudi Arabia in 1979-1980.16 But it is paralysed due to internal splits. In 2017, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, as well as non-GCC member Egypt, began a land, air and sea blockade of Qatar, in response to its alleged leniency towards Iran and its alliances with Islamists in the region. Member countries downgraded their representation at the GCC summit in Kuwait in 2017, sending ministers rather than heads of state. Attempts by EU member-states to revive meetings with the GCC have failed: the Saudis and Emiratis did not show up.

Saudi Arabia has instead side-stepped the Council and strengthened bilateral ties with the UAE. The UAE and in particular the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, Muhammad bin Zayed (known as MbZ), have been important in shaping MbS’s regional policy, particularly vis-à-vis Iran. In December 2017, the UAE and Saudi Arabia signed a trade and defence agreement, the ‘Strategy of Resolve’. However, after the Khashoggi affair, the UAE has attempted to distance itself from MbS. 

Exporting extremism: Saudi Arabia in the world 

Sunni Islam is the bedrock of the Saudi state: sharia law is the legal system, and leaders follow the religious advice of clerics. The king has a dual role as the monarch of Saudi Arabia and as the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques in Mecca and Medina. The state religion follows the ultra-conservative Wahhabi doctrine, which calls for a return to the austere practices of the Salaf, the first three generations of Muslims, in the 7th century. Wahhabism is puritanical and ascetic, in contrast to other versions of Sunni Islam: the movement rejects popular Islamic practices like the celebration of the Prophet’s birthday, and is harshly intolerant of Shia Islam or other religions like Judaism and Christianity.

Saudi Arabia has been a powerful exporter of Wahhabism since the 1960s, enabled by its immense oil wealth. After the Iranian revolution, both states competed to export their respective brands of Islam, and to dominate the Islamic world.
The waging of violent jihad is not inherent in Wahhabism or Salafism,17 and jihadists comprise a tiny minority among Wahhabis and Salafis.18 But Saudi Wahhabi jihadists have orchestrated high-profile acts of terrorism. Fifteen of the 19 hijackers that carried out the September 11th 2001 attacks were Saudi nationals. After the 2003 invasion of Iraq, more Saudi suicide bombers went to Iraq from Saudi Arabia than from any other country; and more Saudi jihadist fighters (2,500) joined ISIS in Syria than from any other country except Tunisia. ISIS adopted official Saudi textbooks at its schools until its own books were published in 2015.19

Wahhabi influence flows from Saudi Arabia into sub-Saharan Africa, south and south-east Asia, and Europe in the form of donations, the construction of mosques and schools, religious literature, and preachers. Eighty per cent of students at Medina University are foreign.20 The Saudi presence is strongest in the Horn of Africa, West Africa, South and South East Asia, and the Balkans.21 

Europe is an export destination for Saudi Wahhabism.22 From 1964 to 2004, Saudi Arabia built 1359 mosques, 210 Islamic centres, 202 colleges and 2000 schools in non-Muslim-majority countries. Saudi donations totalling “many billions” of riyals financed 16 American mosques, four Canadian, and some in London, Madrid, Brussels
and Geneva.23 
Belgium is home to 600,000 Moroccan and Turkish immigrants, who come from more tolerant Islamic traditions. From the 1970s onwards, Saudi Arabia has shifted the dominant Islamic culture in Belgium towards Wahhabism via donations and the influence of its preachers. The Grand Mosque in Brussels was built with Saudi money and staffed with Saudi imams. In 2012, a Saudi preacher was dismissed after complaints that he had branded himself a “true Salafi”. A Belgian parliamentary committee found that nine registered jihadists had attended a course at the mosque. Following these findings, the Belgian government announced it would end the rent-free lease of the mosque to Saudi Arabia.

Per capita, more Belgians left to fight for ISIS than citizens of any other European member-state. In November 2015, a group of Belgian, French and Iraqi citizens affiliated with ISIS carried out a series of terrorist attacks in Paris.24 In March 2016, that same group carried out three co-ordinated attacks across Belgium.

Saudi-exported Wahhabism is just one of many factors that have contributed to Islamic terrorist activity in Europe: others include ISIS propaganda, repressive governments in the Muslim world and anger over Western foreign policy. The experience of people with a North African background in Belgium and France is also an important factor: too many are poor, have too little education and are discriminated against and alienated from broader society.

The Saudi regime is aware of the damage to its international reputation and its own security, so has turned towards at least a semblance of moderation. From 2003 onwards, when Saudi Arabia suffered internal attacks by Al-Qaeda, King Salman stopped funding for organisations with links to terrorism, and began co-operating with Western intelligence agencies. In 2010, Saudi intelligence prevented an al-Qaeda plot to blow up two American cargo planes. Between 2004 and 2012, 3,500 imams in Saudi Arabia were fired for refusing to renounce extremism, and 20,000 were retrained.25 Saudi Arabia has also enacted effective de-radicalisation programmes – the kingdom’s counselling programme had a 90 per cent success rate in 2007.26 MbS has intensified the public relations exercise. He recognises the continued threat to Saudi security posed by jihadist attacks, despite de-radicalisation successes: there were 34 inside the kingdom in 2016.27 At a conference for international investors in 2017, MbS vowed to “destroy … extremist thoughts”, claiming the kingdom adopts “a moderate Islam open to the world and all religions”.28

European leaders often cite close counter-terrorism co-operation with Saudi Arabia as an argument for preserving the relationship. But it is unclear whether the threat of terrorism against Western countries has been lessened or merely driven underground. An investigation commissioned by the government of David Cameron into the foreign funding of British jihadi groups has been suppressed by Theresa May’s government, and has yet to be published.29

Passivity and tolerance: The EU and Saudi Arabia

In search of a Middle East strategy Europe’s security is intimately bound up with that of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) because of its proximity. The region is in crisis, with conflicts in Syria, Libya, Yemen and Iraq. Stability in the MENA region is important to the EU, to protect its energy security, prevent future migration crises, contain extremism and stop the proliferation of nuclear and chemical weapons.

However, the EU lacks a coherent strategy for the region. Policy is broken into different instruments and channels, like the European Neighbourhood Policy, the agreement with the GCC, or co-operation with the League of Arab States – with unclear and overlapping mandates. And all too often, the EU has been passive in the Middle East.

The relationship between Saudi Arabia and the EU is weak. There is no formal bilateral relationship. The EU’s interactions are channelled via the GCC, which is paralysed. Saudi Arabia is one of few G20 states that has almost no contractual relationship with the EU. It has no strategic partnership, no free trade agreement, and no political declaration. Saudi Arabia only opened its mission to the EU in Brussels in 2018, four decades after China and Russia, while the EU delegation to the GCC in Riyadh was established in 2004.

The EU and GCC signed a Co-operation Agreement in 1988, committing themselves to enter negotiations for a free trade agreement, and setting up a Joint Council for foreign ministers. Trade negotiations have foundered repeatedly. In 2008, the GCC unilaterally suspended the negotiations after objecting to the EU’s standard human rights clause, included in all its trade agreements (which requires both parties to respect human rights and democratic principles). But concerns about human rights have been used by both sides to conceal unease about other things: the GCC worries about deeper liberalisation of services and investment and the EU’s demand that states cut subsidies to citizens, while the EU’s members do not want to cut import duty on Gulf petrochemicals.30

In 2010, the two parties signed a Joint Action Programme to implement a co-operation agreement, promising bilateral co-operation in 14 areas, including the economy, trade and tourism. This has resulted in little more than expert consultations and vague joint statements.

This failing relationship can be traced back to structural obstacles and divisions within both blocs. The GCC secretariat is unable to negotiate on behalf of member countries on many trade matters, such as services, investment and procurement. Both the EU and GCC suffer from divisions, with member countries operating their own, conflicting foreign policies. 

An unbalanced relationship

EU-Saudi co-operation is in both parties’ interests. However, the relationship in its current form is asymmetrical. Though Saudi Arabia often acts as though it is the partner with more leverage, the kingdom needs Europe: it is dependent on European arms and investment, and on Europe as an oil export destination. European governments, on the other hand, act as though they are the weaker powers. They respond to Saudi abuses with critical rhetoric (if that) and no action.

The need for stability and the maintenance of a balance of power between Iran and the Sunni states gives European leaders a political justification for tolerating Saudi misbehaviour. European governments believe that sustaining the status quo is preferable to risking further chaos in the region, which would come at a vast human cost and endanger EU interests. The US invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein created a power vacuum that Iran filled. Ever since, the US and EU have viewed Saudi Arabia as the only other regional power capable of counterbalancing the Iranians – and preventing further expansion by them and their proxies. If the balance of power shifted significantly, the entire region could be further engulfed in sectarian warfare. Iran could spur Saudi Arabia’s Shia minority (10 to 15 per cent of the population) into a violent uprising, or Saudi Arabia could precipitate unrest among Iran’s Sunni minority (around 9 per cent of the population).31 

But in tolerating Saudi violations, the EU could become an unwitting handmaiden of new threats. MbS’s adventurism poses a serious danger to the stability of the region, and could fuel extremism and migration pressures for the EU. Conflicts in Iraq, Syria and Yemen have caused mass displacements of people, with millions fleeing violence. Most refugees and asylum-seekers remain in the region, particularly in Jordan and Lebanon, but many have tried fleeing towards Europe. In 2015, over one million refugees and asylum seekers reached Europe by sea, an increase of 370 per cent from the previous year (though the number of arrivals has fallen very significantly since).32 The majority came from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq. The current power vacuum in Yemen and the dire humanitarian situation have bred instability, allowing extremist organisations like al-Qaeda to flourish. The possibility of spill-over from the conflict also concerns the EU, which has invested heavily in Egypt, Iran, Syria, maritime security in the Gulf of Aden, and in the Horn of Africa. 

Economic co-operation

There are sizeable economic interdependencies between Saudi Arabia and the EU, but trade is unbalanced. The EU runs a trade surplus with Saudi Arabia of €11 billion,33 and a quarter of Saudi Arabia’s imports come from the EU.34 And while the EU is an important destination for Saudi goods, taking 11 per cent of the kingdom’s non-oil exports,35 Saudi Arabia is the EU’s thirteenth-largest trade partner in goods, equivalent to just 1.5 per cent of total trade.36 


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