Relations between Russia and the United Kingdom were always temperamental, at best. You only have to look at the history, which includes alleged Novichok poisonings, to get a grasp of the hostility between the two nations. However, in February, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine caused an indelible rift between the two superpowers, signalling the need for new energy partners where Britain is concerned.

The Problem with Sanctions

The UK has joined its allies in sanctions on Moscow, excluding major Russian banks such as Sberbank and VTB from making financial operations through SWIFT and freezing any Russian assets.

Russian individuals have also been targeted. Oligarchs such as Roman Abramovic saw many of their assets seized. Abramovic, the former owner of Chelsea FC, was forced to put the club up for sale in March.

Most notably, sanctions include permanently reducing energy imports from Moscow. In 2021, 4% of gas and 9% of oil came to the UK from Russia. Then Ukraine happened and now Johnson’s government is forced to seek alternative oil and gas suppliers.

One natural candidate is Saudi Arabia, with whom Britain already has significant trade relations. Since March 2015, £7.1 billion in arms exports has been sent to the Saudi Kingdom. The majority of this weaponry was used in the Yemeni civil war. 

Murky Morals

On March 16, Boris Johnson visited Saudi Arabia and met with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The visit aimed to encourage an increase in Saudi oil exports to the United Kingdom and Europe as a whole. But the move was met with opposition from Deputy Leader of Labour, Angela Rayner, who said the Prime Minister had:

‘gone cap in hand from one dictator to another on a begging mission to the Saudi prince to bail him out.’

Indeed, the actions of Johnson held an aspect of double standards. British energy needs were shifting from trade deals with an authoritarian state to one that is an absolute monarchic dictatorship. In Saudi Arabia, the Royal Family retains complete political control over the state with a total absence of elections. This is of course the norm for many Gulf states, including Qatar and Oman. What is notable here, is that Mohammed bin Salman appears to be using his authority more aggressively on the international stage.

Despite Dominic Raab stating that the government would, ‘never allow our moral red lines to be blurred,’ Johnson has failed to address the issue of Jamal Khashoggi’s death. The Saudi journalist was murdered in Istanbul’s Saudi consulate in 2018, under orders delivered by the Crown Prince himself. Khashoggi, who fled his home country the year before, was a vocal critic of Saudi rule and its zero-tolerance for dissent.

The questionable moral aspect of relations between Britain and Saudi Arabia was further highlighted in the world of football. In November 2021, Newcastle United FC was bought by a Saudi-led consortium. The Public Investment Fund (PIF), managed by the Saudi government, would obtain 80 per cent of the club as part of the deal.

After a failed first attempt at a takeover in 2021, the government insisted that it was not involved in negotiations. However, a recent investigation published by The Guardian in May found otherwise. In reality, the government reportedly tried for months to persuade the Premier League to approve the Saudi takeover. 

The UK’s Predicament

The war in Ukraine has put significant pressure on the British government. Cutting ties with Russia was necessary not only to appease strong public opinion but for political motivations as well.

The turmoil in Ukraine has provided the UK with a fresh opportunity to strengthen relationships across Europe. Brexit has largely alienated Downing Street from European states that were previously close allies. After failing to deliver on support during Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, Britain has seemingly turned a corner with vigorous support in 2022.

Ukrainian soldiers have been receiving support from Britain through training and weaponry deliveries, such as anti-tank weapons and missiles. In the wake of Brexit, Boris Johnson has the opportunity not only to improve foreign relations but to demonstrate that Britain can succeed in isolation post Brexit.

Although Britain’s energy issues began before the war in Ukraine, Russia’s invasion only made things worse. The country has been plunged into one of the worst cost of living crises in a generation. A key aspect of this is the sharp increase in energy bills and petrol prices felt by nearly every person.

The British public is facing increases of up to £800 on their energy bills this year, totalling £2800 annually. Such a rise could see millions of people pushed into fuel poverty, with figures predicted to reach 12 million. Despite Rishi Sunak’s announcement of a £400 discount on fuel bills, the government is running out of time to find alternative sources of oil and gas to ease the growing financial pressure.

Saudi Ambitions and Skewed Ethics

Britain’s need for a new energy source is not the only factor driving closer relations with the Saudis. Saudi Arabia is keen to improve its image, despite the continuing human rights abuses.

In recent years, the Gulf state has been imposing itself on the global stage — particularly in sports. Last year marked the inaugural Saudi Arabian Grand Prix, hosted in Jeddah. This came just weeks after the PIF completed their takeover of Newcastle United, making the club the ‘richest’ in the world. The effects of the sale can already be seen in the transformation of the club’s performance.

This year also sees the introduction of a new Saudi-funded golf group, LIV, which has recently received £1.6 billion in funding and will rival the infamous PGA tour. The tour’s director, former golfer Greg Norman, said ‘we’ve all made mistakes,’ when questioned about Saudi human rights issues.

In early May, Boris Johnson became the first political leader to address Ukrainian politicians in person. The Prime Minister described the war as having ‘no moral ambiguities or no grey areas,’ and being about ‘freedom versus oppression’ and ‘good versus evil’.

However, Johnson has not applied these moral requisites when it comes to Britain’s relationship with Saudi Arabia. In fact, more business with the Gulf state means more mobility for Mohammed bin Salman to crackdown on dissent and continued intervention in the Yemeni Civil War. Since 2015, Saudi Arabia has launched an average of ten air raids on Yemen every day, killing 9,000 civilians in the process and injuring 10,000.

In order to continue this investment, Mohammed bin Salman is eager to accelerate the sale of oil and gas at his disposal. This ambition to find new buyers fits perfectly with the needs of the United Kingdom as well as the United States in their search for domestic security.

Britain’s withdrawal from Russia may seem motivated by moral obligation. But if Saudi Arabia is to become Russia’s permanent replacement, the ethics looks rather skewed.

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