27.09.2019 Author: Salman Rafi Sheikh

Why does Europe Prefer Saudi Arabia over Iran?


The joint statement issued by the ‘European superpowers’ known as the E3 explicitly declared Iran responsible for attacks on Saudi oil facilities, ignoring completely the claims that the Houthis have been making about these very attacks. Certainly, the position taken by the E3 is a setback for Iran in as much as it signals a fast-changing European position vis-à-vis Iran and the Iran nuclear deal and an increasing agreement with the US and Saudia over casting Iran as a ‘terrorist state.’ The statement said, “It is clear to us that Iran bears responsibility for this attack….”, and that “These attacks may have been against Saudi Arabia but they concern all countries and increase the risk of a major conflict. They underline the importance of making collective efforts towards regional stability and security.”

While this is nothing short of a clear-cut recipe of greater European involvement in the Middle East, there is equally little gainsaying that European interests, when it comes to choosing between Saudi Arabia or Iran, lie with the former than the latter; hence, Europe’s clear preference for Saudia over Iran.

For the E3, Saudi Arabia is a huge weapons market. Despite the fact that European and US weapons sold to Saudi Arabia have been and continued to be used in Yemen, causing huge damage to the war-torn country, French weapons sales to Saudi Arabia still jumped by almost 50 per cent in 2018. France sold 1 billion euros worth of arms to Saudi Arabia, with the main item being patrol boats. These boats are central to naval blockade of Yemen by Saudi Arabia, a tactic against the Houthis responsible for creating a major humanitarian crisis in the country.

Defending the sale of weapons, France’s Armed Forces Minister, Florence Parly said:

“Maintaining economic relations with these countries [Saudi Arabia] means keeping a presence in key regions for our security interests and our energy supplies. It is also about fighting terrorism and protecting our nationals on the ground.

Key takeaways from this statement are obviously French geopolitical interests that don’t align with Iran at all. In fact, the health of these interests rests on the continuity of conflict in these regions, an ideal situation for increasing arms sales.

The same holds true of Britain as well. Britain’s Boris Johnson recently called for a new deal with Iran. Calling the 2015 agreement a “bad deal”, Johnson said “I think there’s one guy who can do a better deal and one guy who understands how to get a difficult partner like Iran over the line and that is the president of the United States.” Johnson described Trump as a “very, very brilliant negotiator” who could produce a “Trump deal”.

The reason why UK, very much like France, prefers Saudi Arabia over Iran is UK’s own weapons sales to the Kingdom. Although these sales were only recently declared unlawful by a UK court, the ruling said many important things, including the way the UK was protecting Saudi human rights violations in Yemen. The ruling said that “a close reading” of evidence supplied in secret shows that in “early 2016” there had been a covert change of UK policy towards Saudi Arabia. “There was a decision, or a change of position, so that there would be no assessment of past violation of IHL [international humanitarian law]” by Saudi Arabia in Yemen.” Significantly enough, people at the helm of the 2016 decision included Boris Johnson, the UK’s current prime minister, explaining UK’s current position in the whole scenario.

Even the ruling doesn’t cover all types of weapons sold to the Kingdom. In particular, bombs like Paveway, Brimstone and Storm Shadow used by the Saudi air force in Yemen are covered by separate open licences, which have not been suspended by the court, and are only under review. Supply of these bombs will accordingly continue, helping the Saudis spread mayhem in Yemen.

Although Germany has officially suspended sales of weapons to Saudi Arabia, there are reports that indicate how the German government continues to sale weapons to the Kingdom through indirect means, means that include France as well. Also, the fact that Germany recently agreed with the US on a possible joint military action, if need be, in the Strait of Hormuz shows that Germany actually stands with Saudi Arabia over its tussle with Iran. The UK, too, is considering participation in a US-led military action in the Gulf, action solely aimed at bolstering Saudi defence vis-à-vis Iran.

Through arms sales and promises of military action, the E3, although it still continues to talk of ‘sticking to the 2015 nuclear agreement’, is fundamentally helping Saudi Arabia counter its main adversary i.e., Iran in the Middle East.

With Europe now clearly standing with the US and Saudi position on Iran, what is most likely to happen is an even greater and stronger ties between Iran and China and Iran and Russia, Iran’s only allies in the current scenario capable of helping it thwart threats of action in the Gulf and Strait of Hormuz or the pressure of starting negotiations to do the “Trump deal.”

Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.

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