Monday, February 26, 2024
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HomeOpinionCommentaryLightning can strike twice

Lightning can strike twice

  • Defence Secretary Grant Shapps delivered a speech at the 2024 World Defense Show in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia

By Grant Shapps

Sixty years ago, the skies above Riyadh bore witness to a remarkable demonstration as a supersonic aircraft shot into the atmosphere at twice the speed of sound.

Just two years later, and 40 of those iconic English Electric Lightning jets were heading to Saudi Arabia where they became as revered an icon of the skies over here as they were back in the UK. Yet that special flight also seemed to send our own partnership into the stratosphere.

1964 saw the first British military mission to the Saudi Arabian National Guard, and 14 years after that we brought across a project team which has been supporting you with advice, information and communications service ever since.

So that one pioneering flight demonstrated ours is a partnership built from the strongest of frames. An understanding of the value of defence, an appreciation of the merits of innovation, and a desire to keep working together. And how fitting then that 60 years on, here at this fantastic World Defense Show, we are once again celebrating a partnership that’s putting on the afterburners.

Not only can we reflect on a mutual commitment to combat air that’s taken us from Lightning to Tornado, to Typhoon – with hundreds of UK military personnel now committed to Saudi programmes. But we have also stepped up the pace on the ground as well, with our Defence Cooperation Plan catalysing deeper cooperation between our Land Forces.

However, my purpose in attending this great exhibition is not to reminisce about our past, nor even to reflect on our present, it is to talk about our future. Because if the incredible story of the Lightning tells us anything, it’s that when an opportunity arises in our mutual interests, we know how to seize it together. And frankly, when I look around me, I see opportunity abounds.

Yours is a nation buzzing with energy. Creating new cities out of sand, redefining sport by hosting the World Cup in E-sports. Spearheading the charge towards a greener future.

Yet if there’s one event that seemed to encapsulate your sense of ambition, it was what happened last year, when Saudi fighter pilot and astronaut, Ali Al-Qarni, and his crew member, Rayyanah Barnawi, became the first two Saudi astronauts to visit the International Space Station.

Proof – if it were needed – that you are nation in fast forward. You’ve bottled lightning, and now you’re accelerating towards the future with increasing velocity. The UK wants to be on that journey with you. But there’s only one thing that can pull us back down to earth.

Instability: For decades our prosperity and progress has been underpinned by the international rules-based order, yet today we live in a far more dangerous world. Our once reliable order is under threat from the likes of big state aggressors and from rogue states, whose terrorist proxies are hell-bent on destroying our freedom and damaging our wealth.

So now is the time to tighten our ties. How? First by working together – in the words of your conference, to be equipped for tomorrow.

Once upon a time, we showcased a jet in your skies. Today we’ve brought more than 30 of our finest UK firms to your show, including a Wildcat helicopter, delivered by one of our Royal Air Force’s A400M transport aircraft.

Demonstrating our skills not just in the air, but on land, sea, cyber and space. Our delegation are experts in power and engines, in critical components and complex weapons, in state-of-the-art surveillance and next-generation electronic warfare.

Our people know everything there is to know in mine countermeasures and military suspension and durable materials, 3D sensors, sonars, and uncrewed systems.

But my second point is that we are looking for much more than a transient transaction. We want to build an even deeper industrial partnership.

Saudi Arabia quite rightly wants to develop its own defence industrial base – and we want to help you get there – developing mutually beneficial capability programmes to support regional security.

Already we have a deep industrial partnership stretching across air, land, sea and cyber. To take just one example, BAE’s workforce here in Saudi Arabia is almost 75 percent Saudi. Which brings me to my third and final point: Both our nations share pressing strategic priorities.

We both seek to calm conflicts. We both desire de-escalation. And even as Saudi Arabia aims for the stars, so its influence on terra firma is increasing too. It has a critical role to play in this region as interlocutors, as mediators and as leaders.

So, I see us doing more together to help shore up our international rules-based order. Doing more to ensure adherence to international humanitarian law. Doing more to prevent a breakdown in regional security, so we guarantee the safety and security of all people.

Sixty years ago, we brought Lightning to this great Kingdom and helped transform our partnership. Sixty years on, we’re now looking to elevate our relationship to even greater heights. I, for one, am a strong believer that Lightning can strike twice.

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