Michael Stephens is the research fellow for Middle East Studies at Royal United Services Institute RUSI, and formerly served in the U.K. Foreign and Commonwealth Office.
Following a dramatic breakdown in relations between Canada and Saudi Arabia over a tweet, Canadians could be forgiven for feeling both perplexed and frustrated.
The prevailing belief is that Canada has been left to face the wrath of the Saudis alone. The United States says the two sides should “solve it together”; meanwhile Britain could only “urge restraint on both sides.”
Pro-Saudi media outlets in the Arab world have been keen to pick on this trend, claiming that Canada is “alone without friends," the implication being that this isolation means Saudi Arabia must be in the right.
While this might be good propaganda for the Saudis, the truth is a little different, and the facts seem to have slipped between the cracks. So let me state it clearly: Canada is not alone, and it will not be left to face this crisis alone. The notion that Canada would be left to fend for itself is unthinkable.
Britain has been working behind the scenes to prevent any escalation of the dispute. The United States, meanwhile, has been bogged down attempting to heal a year-long spat between Qatar and its neighbours in order to face down Iran, upon whom Washington placed multiple sanctions last week.
Saudi Arabia currently has a penchant for engaging in diplomatic crises, which is becoming a headache for all those outside a small circle of advisers to U.S. President Donald Trump – who himself seems to like nothing more than a good international ruckus. Just ask Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. For those who seek a more stable Middle East region, it hasn’t been an easy year.
For Britain and the United States, the Persian Gulf states are long-standing partners, and both countries maintain close diplomatic relations and deep defence interests in the region.
It was only in 1971 that Britain finally ended its control of the Gulf region. The famous joke is that Britain left by the front door and returned straight away through the back window. About 250,000 Brits reside in the Gulf at any one time, sending home low-taxed remittances, which serve as a huge boost to the British economy. For the United States, a string of bases in the Gulf give it the capability to operate in Afghanistan and Iraq, and maintain a containment policy against Iran. This without mentioning the continued importance of the Gulf region to global oil prices.
To put it mildly, all of these factors are a constraint when dealing with a country such as Saudi Arabia, and entrenched interests in the Gulf are unique and difficult to navigate.
This may sound like an excuse, but the fact of the matter is Canada has become involved in a spat with a country that has tremendous influence in Western capitals.
Nevertheless, for all its wealth and the depth of historic ties Riyadh possesses in London and Washington, it will never supplant Canada. There is a difference between having a partner such as Riyadh and an ally such as Canada, which has stood shoulder to shoulder with Britain and the United States through numerous conflicts over the past 150 years.
Canada, Britain and the United States are members of the Five Eyes security relationship, which is unlike any other diplomatic and intelligence network in the world. It is a bond of countries with common values who speak frankly and openly with one another, and who align their interests overseas to the best of their abilities.
Mr. Trump may or may not value this relationship, but we in Britain certainly do. Should the crisis escalate, Riyadh knows full well that we would not take their side, and this is why the dispute should go no further. Indeed, behind London’s call for restraint is a firm message to Riyadh not to push the issue, thereby forcing Britain to pick a side.
It is regrettable that our closest friends feel alone at this time, but it is important to state again that Britain will continue to try its hardest to prevent the crisis from expanding. Canada can rest assured that its friends are working to support it, albeit quietly.