UK-Saudi pact faces existential crisis

UK-Saudi pact faces existential crisis
Comment: As alarm over Saudi human rights abuses grows, so does criticism of the Westminster-Riyadh friendship. The relationship of convenience is under threat like never before, writes Tom Charles.
6 min read
24 Jul, 2017
The ties between the UK and Saudi Arabia run deep [Getty]

The UK's Faustian pact with the Saudis has survived the parliamentary term, but its fate is now tied to the dwindling electoral power of the Conservatives.

As the UK parliament's summer recess begins, the Conservative party remain in government but is significantly weakened. Their relationship with Saudi Arabia mirrors this: it remains in place, but the pressure continues to grow over Saudi human rights violations.


Last week alarm was raised over 14 men set to be beheaded by the Saudis for taking part in protests in 2012.

The 14, who include two juveniles and a disabled man, were tortured and then tried in secret.

According to the human rights NGO Reprieve, the disabled man, Munir Al-Adam, who has impaired sight and hearing, gave a "confession" to the authorities after he was tortured so brutally that he became completely deaf in one ear.

Another of the 14, Mujtaba'a al-Sweikat, was 17 when he was arrested at an airport en route to take up a university place in the United States. He was burned with cigarettes, abused until his shoulder was broken, and then denied medical attention.

Research findings from Reprieve in 2015 found that the vast majority - 72 percent - of people facing execution in the kingdom were convicted of non-lethal offenses, including political protest, often after torture and forced "confessions".

The NGO also found that the Saudis executed at least 158 people in 2015. The latest slated executions follow the mass execution in January 2016 of 47 civilians convicted of "terrorism" and sentenced by the Specialised Criminal Court (SCC). The 47 included critics of the government and young protestors whose charges included the shouting of slogans.

The SCC conducts closed hearings, and lawyers have limited access to their clients. The "confessions" obtained are illegal under both international and Saudi domestic law. The total number of people sentenced to death in Saudi in 2017 has reached 54.

UK collaboration

The UK College of Policing has been training the Saudis in cyber-forensics since 2009, leading to concern that the UK is providing the expertise for the Saudis to kill those they consider enemies within.

Instead of giving British assistance to the Saudi executioners, the prime minister should offer her unequivocal support to those young men facing beheading

"By not speaking out against these abuses, the prime minister is condoning the beheadings and putting the UK's reputation as a defender of human rights at serious risk," Reprive Director Maya Foa said in criticism of Theresa May.

"Instead of giving British assistance to the Saudi executioners, the prime minister should offer her unequivocal support to those young men facing beheading and urge the Saudi king and crown prince to stop these unjust executions."

The police training is the tip of a much larger iceberg: The UK is the planet's second-biggest arms dealer, and Saudi Arabia is its best customer. In 2015, as the Saudis started their assault on Yemen, arms sales from the UK increased 100-fold in three months. And £38 billion ($57.6bn) of sales had already been approved in the first four years (2010-2014) of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government.

The establishment's commitment to Saudi Arabia is such that it was a Labour rebellion against leader Jeremy Corbyn last year that scuppered his attempt to freeze arms sales to the absolute monarchy until the UN had completed an investigation into violations of international law in Yemen. 

Corbyn leads dissent

But it is true to say that the UK's relationship with Riyadh is under greater scrutiny than ever before. On International Human Rights Day, Corbyn said: "We have seen the prime minister sacrifice human rights on the altar of the arms trade." Since then, Corbyn's stock has risen, and Labour's manifesto pledged an immediate suspension of arms sales to the House of Saud.

Corbyn is leading the resistance to the corrupting partnership, and was joined by former Labour leader Ed Miliband, former Conservative International Development Secretary Andrew Mitchell and Liberal Democrat Spokesman Tom Brake when they wrote to Theresa May, asking her to "personally urge Saudi Arabia's King Salman and Crown Prince Bin Salman to halt the 14 upcoming executions".

The Conservative minority government is relying on a time-honoured approach to fend off criticisms. An urgent question on the executions was tabled by Brake in the House of Commons last week.


The response from Middle East Minister Alistair Burt provided no hint that the Tories would change tack and use their leverage to challenge their misogynistic, homophobic, anti-democratic ally. Burt's verbosity was in full flow: the "starting point for engagement on human rights with all countries is based on what is practical, realistic and achievable… use engagement to encourage reform… we should not ignore Saudi Arabia's important contribution to regional stability… quiet conversations with states over a period of time effect change."

Labour MP Stephen Hepburn said Burt should 'stop pussying around on this matter and demand that these executions do not go ahead'

Burt rationalised Saudi Arabia's use of illegal punitive measures by saying the country was "relatively new and coming to terms with the modern world". Taking the orientalist baton, Tory MP Simon Hoare lamented "alas, perhaps - we are no longer an imperial power able to send a gunboat to enforce our view of the world, will my right honourable friend confirm that, in his considerable experience in the Foreign Office, a quiet conversation to make our case and set out our views is far more likely to be effective than shouting at people across the railings?"

"Shouting across the railings" were Labour MPs, accusing the government of treating Riyadh's human rights record as "an inconvenient embarrassment rather than a cause for serious concern".

Labour MP Stephen Hepburn said Burt should "stop pussying around on this matter and demand that these executions do not go ahead".

The SNP joined in, and even some Conservative back benchers raised concerns that the quixotic approach of May's government cannot allay.

Repression and suppression

Summer has arrived but Saudi politics is still news. It has been revealed that the UK government approved £283 million ($3.7m) in arms sales to the Saudis in the six months after their October 2016 massacre at a Yemeni wedding, on the insistence of Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson.

And Theresa May is refusing to comment on a suppressed report widely believed to identify the Saudis as key funders of the international terrorism that has wrought so much horror in western cities.

So, the contradiction continues: The Business Department says Saudi Arabia is a "primary market for arms exports", and the Foreign Office calls the kingdom "a country of major human rights concern" - in part due to its systematic imprisonment, torture and beheading of political opponents.

Theresa May's government is reliant on people's indifference to the fate of their fellow humans thousands of miles away to maintain its profitable arms deals, but awareness of Saudi crimes is increasing just as May's credibility is reaching new lows.

The terrorist attacks in Manchester and London were widely understood to be connected to UK foreign policy and were followed by her election capitulation and her failure to respond normally to the Grenfell Tower disaster. As a result, she is politically weak, as is her government.

When parliament reconvenes, the UK-Saudi pact will continue to face what is becoming an existential threat. 

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.