UK-Saudi pact to be tested in 2017

UK-Saudi pact to be tested in 2017
Comment: British support for Riyadh has long gone unchallenged, but this looks set to change next year, writes Tom Charles.
5 min read
22 Dec, 2016
British establishment figures have long courted Saudi royalty [Getty]

Boris Johnson's recent outburst against Saudi Arabia could accelerate his departure as foreign secretary and replacement with a more reliably sycophantic pro-Saudi minister.

With Prime Minister Theresa May viewing good relations with the Saudis as a pillar of her foreign policy, Britain's Conservative government has shown no willingness to back down from its special relationship with the absolute monarchy.

This coming year will provide Labour and other opposition parties with opportunities to challenge the UK's corrupting Saudi alliance.

IS funding

Labelled by the UK's Business Department as a "primary market for arms exports", Saudi Arabia is also listed by the Foreign Office as "a country of major human rights concern" due to its systematic imprisonment, torture and beheading of political opponents, as well as its misogynistic and homophobic policies.

A much more plausible reason for protecting the Saudi friendship is that the kingdom is the largest buyer of UK-made weapons

May's predecessors have defended the UK's intimacy with The House of Saud on security grounds, but leaked emails from Hillary Clinton show the former US secretary of state allege the Saudis were clandestinely funding IS and other groups considered to be threats to the UK.

"We need to use our diplomatic and more traditional intelligence assets to bring pressure on the governments of Qatar and Saudi Arabia, which are providing clandestine financial and logistic support to [IS] and other radical Sunni groups in the region,"read the email, which at a stroke removed the credibility of the security argument as justification for the contradictory relationship.

A much more plausible reason for protecting the Saudi friendship is that the kingdom is the largest buyer of UK-made weapons, with £38 billion ($57.6bn) of sales in the first four years (2010-2014) of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government. 

This year, the committee on Arms Exports Controls produced a list of the weapons given export licenses for sale to the Saudis. The list is so extensive that to reproduce it here would take up over half of this article's allotted word count.

In 2015, UK bomb sales to Saudi Arabia rose 100-fold, and £3.3 billion of arms have been licensed by the UK since the Saudi intervention in Yemen began. 

Johnson's 'gaffe'

Government ministers have been assiduous in avoiding criticism of Saudi human rights abuses, relying on reassurances from Riyadh. 

Comment: Corruption remains the cornerstone of UK-Saudi relations

It was in this precariously balanced context that Foreign Secretary Johnson expressed some inconvenient facts, denouncing the Saudis and Iran for "twisting and abusing religion and different strains of the same religion in order to further their own political objectives" and accusing Riyadh of "puppeteering and playing proxy wars".

Both sides looked to play down Johnson's criticisms, with Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir saying he believed the comments had been "misconstrued and taken out of context". And after Theresa May distanced the government from Johnson's remarks, the foreign secretary was at pains to make amends, claiming that in its war on Yemen, Saudi Arabia was "securing itself from bombardment by the Houthis".

Altar of the arms trade

With such inadequate rhetoric coming from government, UK opposition parties can challenge May's Middle East agenda. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has been eager to exploit government complacency over Saudi Arabia in particular.

We have seen the prime minister sacrifice human rights on the altar of the arms trade while Boris Johnson blurts out the reality

"Britain continues to sell arms to Saudi Arabia, a country that the United Nations says is committing repeated violations of international humanitarian law and war crimes in Yemen just as we have seen taking place in Syria," Corbyn told the Labour Party's annual conference in Liverpool.

And in a speech to mark International Human Rights Day, Corbyn stated: "We have seen the prime minister sacrifice human rights on the altar of the arms trade while Boris Johnson blurts out the reality of the Saudi role in fuelling Middle Eastern proxy wars - before heading back to the Gulf once again to apologise.

"When the foreign secretary gets home will he, at last, be brave enough to back Labour's call to halt arms sales to Saudi Arabia, weapons that are being used to bombard civilian areas and carry out gross violations of human rights in Yemen?"

Labour hawks

All well and good, but a Labour motion in the House of Commons that called for suspension of arms sales to the kingdom pending investigations into alleged violations of international humanitarian law failed - because of a Labour rebellion against Corbyn.

The motion did not explicitly call for a suspension of UK arms sales, having been watered down by Corbyn and Shadow Foreign Secretary Emily Thornberry to make it easy for even the party's hawkish right to back it.

The motion was defeated by 283 votes to 193, with 102 Labour MPs passing up the opportunity to embarrass the Saudis, instead undermining their own leader. The folly of the Labour right allowed the Conservatives to propagate the usual line on the Saudis, with Boris Johnson warning that challenging Saudi policies would "at a stroke eliminate this country's positive ability to exercise our moderating, diplomatic and political influence on a crisis where there are massive UK interests at stake".

Establishment support for the Saudis is nothing new and May will seek to protect the alliance to the last, whatever the human cost. Johnson will be moved in a 2017 reshuffle. But parliamentary scrutiny of the relationship is new, and the question is whether Labour and the other parties can force a tangible policy change, or will it be corrupt business as usual between the UK and Saudi Arabia. 

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. 

Follow him on Twitter: @tomhcharles

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.