UK and the Saudis: when realpolitik trumps human rights

UK and the Saudis: when realpolitik trumps human rights
Comment: The UK has long been criticised for its close relationship with a repressive, absolute monarchy. But such issues appear unimportant next multi-billion-dollar arms deals, says Tom Charles.
4 min read
11 Jun, 2015
Royal seal of approval... Prince Charles visited Saudi Arabia in February [Getty]
The UK government's relationship with Saudi Arabia is under increased scrutiny in the light of recent developments in Saudi domestic and foreign affairs.

Human rights groups are alarmed over the punishment handed to Saudi blogger Raif Badawi for expressing his political views. In Yemen, the Saudi-led coalition's air campaign and naval blockade are worsening the humanitarian catastrophe in the country, according to the UN.

UK support for the Saudi assault on Yemen has not gone unnoticed, and the Cameron government's rhetoric on human rights risks looking empty as the two countries press ahead with closer military, economic and political ties.

Badawi's sentence of 10 years in prison and a thousand lashes has been upheld by Saudi Arabia's Supreme Court.

Badawi was originally arrested in 2012 for "insulting Islam through electronic channels". UK campaigners are demanding his release along with a shift in UK-Saudi relations.

More than a million people have signed an Amnesty International petition asking the Saudi government to free Badawi. New Saudi "anti-terrorism" legislation now means that atheists and political campaigners can be considered "enemies of state".

The UK government has expressed concern over the blogger's treatment, with a Foreign Office spokeswoman stating: "We have raised his case at the most senior levels in the government of Saudi Arabia and will continue to do so".

Alarm at Saudi government policy is nothing new in the UK, but so far it has had little or no impact on official relations.

A match made in the boardroom

The UK's ongoing loyalty to its Saudi ally is demonstrated by its decision to assist the Saudi-led coalition in its military intervention in Yemen. The UK's foreign secretary, Philip Hammond, has committed support "in every practical way short of engaging in combat".

This includes "significant infrastructure" provided in support of a naval blockade and the sales of British-made aircraft for the bombing, as part of "a long-standing relationship with the Saudi armed forces". As part of its support, the UK will seek to upgrade and replace anything the Saudis need.

The Conservative government is keen to limit Iran's regional influence and views the Houthis in Yemen as Iranian proxies. However, its support for Saudi Arabia's absolute monarchy is contributing to a humanitarian disaster in Yemen.

The UN has stated that a million Yemenis are now internally displaced and that civilian deaths have now passed 2,000.

Moreover, the naval blockade is inflicting a toll that an already impoverished country cannot withstand - 90 percent of Yemen's food comes from imports, and the Saudis' prevention of the delivery of petrol, diesel and oil tankers has crippled the country's electricity supply leading to the mass closure of hospitals and schools.

Sixteen million Yemenis are without access to drinking water or sanitation, and 20 million, or 78 percent of the population, are in need of humanitarian assistance.

Save the Children reported that Yemeni children are dying from preventable diseases, with little aid getting through. The World Health Organisation this week stated that the "unnecessary loss of innocent lives cannot go on".

Filthy lucre

Despite the gravity of the situation, and the potential damage being done to the UK's reputation, a report last week by IHS Jane's Aerospace stated that Saudi Arabia plans to increase its defence budget by 27 percent in the next five years.

Such an increase makes the Saudi market even more important to the UK arms industry.

The Saudis are already the biggest buyers of UK-made weapons. The UK sold £38bn of them to the Saudis during the first four years of the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition government.

The London-based Campaign Against the Arms Trade has condemned "the real hypocrisy at the heart of UK foreign policy" and described arms sales to the Saudi government as "an expression of political support and commitment to regime survival".

The debate on relations with the Saudis in the UK is increasingly one of realpolitik versus human rights. While the government is quick to express concern over the treatment of Saudi bloggers, the use of British-made jets in the assault on Yemen reveals that the UK government won't end its intimate relationship with this most repressive of regimes any time soon.