Britain and Saudi Arabia: A contentious relationship between kingdoms

Britain and Saudi Arabia: A contentious relationship between kingdoms
Comment: The sycophantic friendliness between each kingdom's elites undermines efforts towards peace and justice while exposing their hypocrisy, writes Tom Charles.
5 min read
04 Dec, 2015
The UK's political ties with Saudi Arabia have recently come under scrutiny [AFP]

Whether Conservative, Labour or a coalition government, UK foreign policy has long tolerated and supported one of the world's most conservative regimes, Saudi Arabia. In the past, silence over Saudi human rights abuses was deafening, but scrutiny of the relationship is growing and reaching the mainstream.

The UK has a time-honoured special relationship with the Saudis - based on military, economic and political ties. This year, the Conservative government has assisted the Saudi war in Yemen through the provision of UK-made aircraft for bombing raids, as well as "significant infrastructure" to support the naval blockade of Yemen's ports.

Saudi Arabia continues to be the biggest buyer of UK-made weapons - £38 billion ($57.6bn) of sales in the first four years of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government.

This year, the committee on Arms Exports Controls produced an eye-watering list of the weapons given export licenses for sale to the absolute monarchy.

     Philip Hammond has vowed to halt arms sales to Riyadh if it is found that they have violated international law

Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond has vowed to halt arms sales to Riyadh if it is found that they have violated international law.

Despite evidence provided by a joint Human Rights Watch-Amnesty International investigation that an attack on a Yemeni ceramics factory used UK-made weapons to violate the law, the Foreign Office is satisfied to have "repeatedly received assurances of compliance with international humanitarian law" from the Saudis.

The UK-Saudi relationship is one of huge contradictions: the Foreign Office lists Saudi Arabia as "a country of major human rights concern". Simultaneously, it has been labelled by the Business Department as a "primary market for arms exports".

Strategically, Britain has long sought to prop up the House of Saud, providing "internal security training" to the Saudi National Guard, a force of around 70,000 employed purely to protect the ruling monarchy from any social unrest, in a country where corporal and capital punishment already act as a significant deterrent.

In October, the government was forced to abandon a £5.9 million ($8.9m) commercial Ministry of Justice deal to provide the Saudis with "training-needs analysis" for their prison system.

Pressure had grown on the Cameron government after Jeremy Corbyn used his first conference speech as Labour leader to call for the government to cancel the contract. Hammond saw the British pull-out as poor diplomacy, saying that the "wider interests of British government" needed to be considered.

In a television interview during the same month, Prime Minister David Cameron refused to answer the question of why the UK was supporting Saudi Arabia's application to join the United Nations Human Rights Council.

Comment: Corruption remains the cornerstone of UK-Saudi relations, writes Richard Brooks

Pressed on why the UK deals so favourably with the kingdom, despite its dire human rights record, Cameron explained: "We receive from them important intelligence and security information that keeps us safe."

But the evidence is that much of what is perceived as a threat to the UK emanates at some point from Saudi Arabia, either directly or indirectly. And voices pointing out this truth have become more prominent of late.

In the debate about policy on the Islamic State group, the government has long favoured airstrikes. Opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn has taken a more nuanced stance, using media appearancesto ask: "Who's funding IS? Who's arming IS? Who's providing safe havens for IS to get [into Syria]? You have to ask questions about the arms that everyone's sold in the region, the role of Saudi Arabia in this."

He has also alleged: "Saudi Arabia, maybe not at government level, but certainly at aid-level, has been providing support to [IS]."

Corbyn wants the UK's response to encompass a review of the close relationship with Saudi Arabia, and into the Saudi role in the growth of IS as an attempt to undermine and overthrow the Assad regime in multi-ethnic Syria. Corbyn is touching on another fact, that the puritanical regime in Saudi Arabia has been a forerunner and inspiration to IS, the root of its Sunni-Wahhabi creed.

Lord Paddy Ashdown, former leader of the Liberal Democrats, has also called into question the Conservative Party's intimate relationship with "rich Gulf individuals".

Ashdown has called for a government inquiry into the funding of jihadism, stating that if the government refused to order such an inquiry, "I think we're entitled to ask 'why not?'" He believes that a report ordered by Cameron studying the Muslim Brotherhood remains unpublished because "it came to a conclusion unhelpful to the Saudis".

     The argument has added to the sense of a grubby relationship between the Conservatives and the Saudi elite

Specifically, the report found that the Brotherhood was neither an extremist group, nor a threat.

Sunni nationalism, pan-Arab unity, increasing Shia influence over the region and democracy are among the threats perceived by the Saudis. The UK shares many of their concerns.

Foreign Secretary Hammond has also faced scrutiny over his acceptance of a £2,000 ($3,000) watch as a gift from one of the kingdom's richest men, billionaire Sheikh Marei Mubarak Mahfouz bin Mahfouz - despite a ban on ministers accepting gifts worth more than £140.

The argument over whether Hammond was entitled to accept the gift has added to the sense of a grubby relationship between the Conservatives and the Saudi elite.

The UK's role in the Middle East is understood as never before, and Cameron will be hoping that there will be a period of quiet over his government's troubling partnership with the exact type of ideology they claim to oppose. Saudi Arabia is no longer the elephant in the room.

Tom Charles is a London-based writer, editor and literary agent. He previously worked in the UK parliament, including as a lobbyist for Palestinian rights. He has contributed to Jadaliyya and the Journal of Palestinian Refugee Studies.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.