Illustration: Ella Baron
By August 2015, the Saudi Arabian government had beheaded more people since the beginning of the year than terrorist group ISIS. The former is a British ally, the latter an enemy. Around 2,000 people have been killed by the Saudi government since 1985, their dismembered corpses often left in public squares as a warning.
According to Amnesty International, the death penalty “is so far removed from any kind of legal parameters that it is almost hard to believe.” The use of torture to extract confessions from suspected ‘criminals’ is commonplace in Saudi Arabia. David Cameron rejects any of this as a problem. Instead he and the Tory government he leads maintain a friendly relationship with the oppressive Saudi regime. Relations are so close that when Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah passed away, Whitehall flew their flags at half-mast.
In his leader’s speech to Labour Party Conference, Jeremy Corbyn’s first message to Cameron went straight to the heart of this issue. Echoing Justice Secretary and Lord Chancellor Michael Gove, Corbyn told the Prime Minister in no uncertain terms that it was time to intervene in Saudi Arabia, to stop the beheading and the crucifixion of Ali Mohammed al-Nimr, who was imprisoned in 2011 at the age of 17 for joining anti-government, pro-democracy protests.
So it came as a pleasant surprise that on October 13th, Downing Street announced plans to cancel a £5.9 million contract to provide a training programme for prisons in Saudi Arabia. This programme would have propped up the penal system of a brutal regime that stones, flogs, beheads, dismembers and even crucifies people as punishment for ‘crimes’ such as sorcery and atheism.
That the Conservative government agreed to this contract in the first place is yet more evidence that this government includes ministers who know the price of everything and the value of nothing. Tory ministers are quite literally willing to sell off human rights to the highest bidder. This sort of stance is unacceptable from any government, let alone an advanced, democratic one.
The contract was set to be let out on a “commercial basis,” meaning that the intention was for the Ministry of Justice to make a profit, rather than to just cover its costs. In effect, the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) wanted to make money out of selling UK state resources, paid for by the time and expertise of MoJ Civil Servants, funded by the UK taxpayer, to the Saudis.
Apart from being Corbyn’s first political victory, this U-turn is also a victory for unlikely liberal hero Michael Gove, whose previous attempts to cancel the project had been resisted by both Cameron and Foreign Secretary Phillip Hammond.
Corbyn responded to the cancellation saying: “David Cameron has been shamed into a U-turn on this terrible contract, but why on earth was it set up in the first place? We should be sending a strong message to repressive regimes that the UK is a beacon for human rights and that this contract bid is unacceptable in the 21st century, and would damage Britain’s standing in the world.”
This deal, if it had gone ahead, would have implied British complicity in the execution of juveniles Ali al-Nimr and Dawoud al-Marhoon for the ‘crime’ of protesting in favour of democracy. It would have implied support for the same system that has sentenced 74-year-old British grandfather Karl Andree to 350 lashes for transporting home-made wine in his car.
Britain’s alliance with Saudi Arabia, however, remains extremely strong. Despite countless accusations of human rights abuses, Britain has continued to replicate the Al-Yamamah arms deal, originally signed by the Thatcher government in 1985, which sees the government supply arms to the Saudis in return for oil.
Between May 2010 and May 2015, the Coalition government licensed almost £4bn in arms to the regime, according to figures obtained by the Campaign Against the Arms Trade. Around 240 Ministry of Defence civil servants and military personnel work in the UK and Saudi Arabia to support the contracts, which will next year include delivery of 22 Hawk jets in a deal worth £1.6bn. And research by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute shows that the UK is now the kingdom’s largest arms supplier, responsible for 36 per cent of all Saudi arms imports.
Cancelling the bid has hopefully sent the message that the UK does not support grossviolations of human rights. It must be noted, however, that Downing Street’s given reason for doing so was in support of the “wider interests of the government” – a disappointingly vague response, and one that exposes the deep hypocrisies of our self-appointed role as global moral arbiter.
In recent months, there has been so much rhetoric about terrorism; so many appeals for action. Yet Britain’s foreign policy towards the Saudis demonstrates how empty such words are.
It would appear that the UK government isn’t all that interested in witnessing democracy flourish in the areas of the Global South where it is so desperately needed; it doesn’t fit with our foreign policy. Sometimes, human rights seem only important to the British state when it is convenient; it is as if it flouts our belief systems in favour of the highest bidder.
Although a definite step in the right direction, the prison U-turn highlights the desperate need for a review of the intensely corrupt nature of Britain’s dealings with Saudi Arabia and other countries across the globe. Britain has a responsibility, as one of the leaders of the West, to take a moral stance on these issues.
It would appear that we denounce our enemies for barbarity, but not our partners.