Speeches, etc.

Margaret Thatcher

Speech to Chatham House Conference on Saudi Arabia

Document type: Speeches, interviews, etc.
Venue: Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House, St James’s Square, central London
Source: Thatcher Archive: press release
Editorial comments:
Importance ranking: Minor
Word count: 2046
Themes: Defence (general), Industry, Trade, Foreign policy (Central & Eastern Europe), Foreign policy (Middle East), Religion & morality

I am delighted to have been asked to open this important conference on Saudi Arabia — a nation whose political importance can hardly be overestimated.

The title of this conference is Inside Saudi Arabia and that brings back some memories. I well remember my first visit as Prime Minister to Saudi Arabia and the Gulf in 1981. In fact, difficult as it is to imagine now, this was the first ever visit by a British Prime Minister to the region. I had always thought that Britain in recent years had taken insufficient interest in Saudi Arabia and her neighbours. Everything I saw convinced me of their importance. And there was something else as well. I am not known as an incurable romantic, but the desert, the mountains, the teeming commerce of the ports — perhaps the contrasts and combinations above all — had that effect on me which it has had on so many English men and women. I came away not just fascinated but captivated by the land, the culture and the people.

But this conference will doubtless and rightly concentrate on more matter of fact questions. And so , perhaps at the risk of sounding somewhat paradoxical, I would like to begin my remarks on the theme of not “Inside” but “Outside Saudi Arabia” .

It was during my years as Prime Minister that the outside world came to recognise the enormous international influence of Saudi Arabia, not only in the oil markets, but also as a regional superpower; as a leader of the wider Islamic family of nations; and as a strong force for moderation and stability on the world stage.

Above all, none of us should forget how much the world owes to King Fahd during those perilous times following the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait because of the courageous part he played in upholding the rule of law in international affairs and punishing the aggression of Saddam Hussein.

If the Saudis had taken the path of soft appeasement then the world would be a far more dangerous place now. For if the King had heeded the many siren voices urging him to negotiate a modus vivendi with Saddam Hussein, instead of immediately making a formal request for the proferred forces which President Bush and I first devised when we were together at Aspen in August 1991, there would today be no free Kuwait and no peace in the Middle East. We should all be thankful that when the Saudis faced their supreme test they did not go “wobbly” !

You will gather from these initial observations Mr Chairman that I am a great admirer of Saudi Arabia and the leadership of King Fahd. However I do not want to spend too much time today looking back at the Gulf War victory. Indeed there should be no resting on our collective laurels, for the world remains a dangerous place and one of the most worrying flashpoint areas remains The Gulf. Saddam Hussein is still in power and it would be foolish and naive to believe that his trouble making days are over. Nor should we assume that other dictators will not arise and develop ambitions against their neighbours in this region and elsewhere.

When would-be aggressors weigh up their chances they consider two questions. First, is there the will to beat the proposed aggression? Second, do those who have the will to uphold a victim's territorial integrity have the means to do so? On the first, of these — the matter of resolve — I thought we all had learned the lesson of this century — that an agressor must never be appeased. Alas, in the last two years we seem to have forgotten it, as the events in Bosnia daily demonstrate — (I shall return to this a little later). But no less important is that we have the means — and that requires strong defence at all times, for the unexpected does happen.

Article 51 of the United Nations Charter reaffirms — not invents — the right of every nation to self-defence. I am proud to have played a part as Prime Minister in helping Saudi Arabia to make provision for its own self-defence through the historic government to government Al Yamamah agreement which King Fahd and I signed in 1985 and which has since brought such great benefit to both our countries.

One of Al Yamamah's achievements has been the training and equipping of the Royal Saudi Air Force by Britain. Both training and aircraft were put to the test of wartime combat far sooner than anyone expected. As we now know, both the aircraft and their RSAF pilots performed superbly in Operation Desert Storm.

The Al Yamamah programme has continued steadily since the conflict. When this year's new order of a further 48 Tornado aircraft for the RSAF has been executed it will be safe to say that Saudi Arabia will have one of the strongest and most effective Air Forces in the world.

Those who argue that arms sales to Middle Eastern Countries are in themselves dangerous because they increase the likelihood of future conflicts are totally misguided.

History teaches us that wars tend to break out not when there is an equal balance of military strength between potential adversaries, but rather when there is an imbalance of military preparedness — with a powerful aggressor being noticeably stronger than its weaker victims. That was the situation in Europe in the 1930's and in Kuwait as compared with Iraq in 1991. Sadly, it was the case in former Yugoslavia, where the communist Serbs had overwhelming military superiority and a UN resolution prevented the victims obtaining the arms they needed for their own self-defence. So the lesson of history is that it is military weakness that temps the tyrant and leads to war.

Against a background of history as a peace loving nation, Saudi Arabia wisely maintains its military strength It has never been conquered or colonised, and it has never had major territorial claims or designs on its neighbours. Alas, the same cannot be said about one or two of the other nearby countries. Iraq, although temporarily crushed, remains a long term enemy and aggressor.

More worrying for the immediate future is the position of Iran. Its massive miltary armament programme, particularly its recent acquisition of North Korean long range missiles and Russian built Kilo submarines, sends its own message of potential trouble up and down The Gulf. So Saudi Arabia is right to be vigilant and to maintain a prudent military balance of power.

Equally, we in Britain are right to continue our policy of supporting our friends the Saudis with responsible programmes of military training, advice, and equipment. We have never exported arms indiscriminately and Saudi Arabia has never used its arms irresponsibly. So I see every good reason for the continuation of the Al Yamamah programme, which may well extend into the fields of naval and anti-submarine warfare because of the disturbing new Iranian build-up in these areas.

I should also add that quite irrespective of defence export considerations, Britain must maintain its own contribution to the military balance of the Gulf through our naval presence on the Armilla Patrol and our RAF missions as part of the Allied Operation Jural over Iraq. We have essential interests in helping to uphold the security of this vital region.

But what about “inside Saudi Arabia” ? I have no intention of meddling in that country's internal affairs. It is one of my firmest beliefs that although there are certain basic standards and goals we should expect from every member of the international community, the precise pace and approach must reflect different societies' cultural, social, economic and historical backgrounds. And Saudi Arabia, in particular, is a complex society which Westerners do not often fully comprehend. I recall that the great British Foreign Secretary Lord Curzon, a statesman who was not always noted for his humility, once modestly said, “The Arab world is a university in which the student never takes his degree” . And if in that university there were to be a special college of Saudi Arabian studies, I suspect that its examinations would be the hardest of all. For as Robert Lacey shrewdly observed in his seminal work.

“The Kingdom is an enigmatic place and it unveils its mysteries only grudgingly.”

However, there is nothing mysterious about some of Saudi Arabia's well known domestic achievements. 61 years ago King Fahd's father, King Abdul Aziz, united the Kingdom and signed the Concession Agreement with the Standard Oil Company of California that was to turn ARAMCO into the largest oil producing company the world has ever known. The Al Saud have turned the country which bears their name into a modern miracle.

Saudi Arabia today boasts roads, airports, schools, hospitals, electricity stations, desalination plants, refineries and petro-chemical installations on a scale and to a specification that the world has never seen before. Successful and skilful economic diversification are occurring. One former British Ambassador described the gigantic infrastructure developments of The Kingdom with the phrase:

“The Saudis are building the Babylon of this millenium.”

Even allowing for a touch of hyperbole the point is a valid one.

Saudi Arabia also fully recognises that, education is of a very high priority both for its own sake and to secure these economic advances. At every level of education — elementary, intermediate, secondary, higher and University — the progress over the last few years has been dramatic.

But, as in every society, change — even the beneficial changes we call progress —brings its own challenges. And the biggest challenge of all is to get the right blend of the old and the new. Inspite of the threat which Islamic fundamentalism seems to pose in some countries, I have no doubt that Islam itself is one of the key forces for stability in modern Saudi Arabia. Another such stabilising force is the solid rock of a well established and respected monarchy. And the third is the growth of a prosperous merchant class which has created a expanding, high-saving private sector economy.

This triangle — the Royal Family, the ulema and the merchants — provides the framework for modern Saudi Arabia. It is not a static framework, but it is a stable one and I am sure its stability will be enhanced by the recent constitutional reforms announced by King Fahd a few weeks ago.

I warmly welcome the creation of the new national consultative council or majlis ash-shura and also the royal decree that provides for regional assemblies to debate local issues and advise the regional governors.

These are important innovations. For without changing the basic system of governance of the Kingdom with the Koran and the Monarchy as the fount of all authority, these reforms do open new doors towards greater participation in government by ordinary citizens. They will allow the government to draw effectively on a wider range of talented people who have much to contribute to their country's development.

I am impressed by both the grand design and the small print of the new Saudi Arabian reforms. In particular, the fact that the Consultative Assembly's 60 strong membership does not include any Princes or serving Ministers shows that this is a genuine broadening of the base of government.

I would agree with the headline in the Riyadh newspaper Arab News of 21st August:

“Kingdom is led into a new era.”

But, as Iraq's invasion of Kuwait so graphically showed, no amount of concentration on social and economic progress will deliver its benefits if aggressors feel that they can overthrow the international civilised order of things and get away with it. I know that Saudi Arabia, like the rest of the Islamic world, shares my horror and disgust at the way in which genocide has been allowed to succeed in the former Yugoslavia. There is a feeling among Muslims, which I understand, that Serbia was only allowed to get away with its aggression because its victims were Muslims. In fact, the truth is that the effective destruction of the sovereign state of Bosnia-Hercegovina concerns people of every creed and country. It is the surest signal to other dictators that the West lacks the resolve to defend justice. We have yet to see its full consequences — our lack of effective action will return to haunt us.

Mr Chairman, the Saudi Arabian achievement has been truly remarkable. That country has managed to combine economic development with loyalty to its traditions and identity. With constitutional reform at home, and a stronger defence and foreign policy abroad, Saudi Arabia is becoming an even more important country both in this vital region and in the wider world.

We are strong partners in trade and defence. We share great strategic interests. We have shed blood together fighting against aggression in the Gulf War. It is a good basis on which ot tread the path of the future together.