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Britain is all talk and no action on human rights

England
Saudi Arabia
Arms
Trade
Barbed wire

Chandan Chaurasia under a Creative Commons Licence

The news that Prince Andrew is visiting Saudi Arabia to ‘reinforce ties’ between the two countries is only the most recent expression of the extremely close relationship between the British establishment and the Saudi autocrats. It may have been a particularly high-profile example, but it is one of many recent reminders that Britain may talk tough on human rights and democracy, but is all too happy to work closely with one of the most despotic regimes in the world.

It would be hard to overstate the level of oppression taking place in Saudi Arabia. To question the Monarch is to risk imprisonment; even your life. The risk has become even greater in recent years. This March Saudi rulers passed a new ‘terrorism’ law that treats all atheists and political dissidents as enemies of the state. Torture is widespread and LGBT citizens are still punished by notoriously restrictive and homophobic laws. Public executions have become an all too regular occurrence, with 59 people having been beheaded since January for offences ranging from drug-smuggling to ‘sorcery’.

Government repression is widespread and systematic, penetrating almost every aspect of life in the Kingdom. The regime is one of few in the region that made no concessions in the aftermath of the ‘Arab Spring’ and even the small glimmers of progress, such as new measures that will allow some women to drive, only emphasize what a uniquely low base the country is starting from. This is why the most recent Economist Democracy Index listed it as the 5th most authoritarian government in the world.

Regardless of its appalling human rights record, the Saudi royal family has had no shortage of international supporters. In the last few years it has been visited by leaders like Angela Merkel, Barack Obama and a sword-dancing Prince Charles. The visits have served to empower them and given them a layer of legitimacy on the world stage. The day after Prince Charles’ recent visit, seven Saudi citizens were jailed for 20 years for ‘offences’ that included protesting. Despite widespread concerns about its role in funding terrorism, the Saudis have been made a central part of the international coalition that has been bombing Iraq.

This political relationship is underpinned by a strong commercial one. The last few weeks have also seen the revelation that Tony Blair has been involved in brokering deals with an oil company founded by a member of the Saudi royal family.

There are now over 200 joint ventures between British and Saudi companies worth $17.5 billion. These have been boosted by a series of extensive arms sales and oil deals. Saudi Arabia is the largest buyer of British-made weapons, and has spent tens of billions of pounds since the 1960s. These sales have enjoyed the explicit support of successive British governments and benefited from a high level of institutional support, with around 270 Ministry of Defence civil servants and military personnel working in Britain to support the contracts.

The scale of the major arms deals have led to close three-way co-operation between the British government, the Saudi regime and BAE Systems. This was evident in the 1980s when Margaret Thatcher presided over the corruption-riddled Al Yamamah Tornado deal and when Tony Blair oversaw the signing of a provisional multi-billion pound agreement for BAE Eurofighter jets in 2005.

In 2006 Blair’s Eurofighter deal came under threat due to an ongoing Serious Fraud Office investigation into allegations that BAE had paid bribes to secure arms sales to the Saudis. However, just as it began to look like the Saudis were going to pull out and move the order to France, Blair intervened and had the investigation dropped.

The nature of the relationship was the subject of an inquiry by the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee (FAC) in 2013. But the report was a whitewash and only served to give political cover to the government to continue its policy of arms sales and turning a blind eye to ongoing human right abuses. Unfortunately, arms companies and Saudi interests were right at the heart of the committee. Sir William Patey, a former British ambassador to Saudi Arabia, was appointed as a Specialist Adviser to the Committee.

This problem was compounded when informal meetings were arranged with representatives from BAE Systems, including Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles, former ambassador to Saudi Arabia and now an international business adviser to BAE, and Bob Keen, BAE’s head of government relations. In comparison there were no informal meetings with any of the critical human rights organizations.

The British government often talks about human rights and democracy but those words ring hollow when it is enjoying such a mutually sycophantic and special relationship with a Saudi dictatorship that commits atrocities on a daily basis and that even Hillary Clinton has linked to the funding of terrorism. Britain’s support doesn’t just line the pockets of arms companies; it also provides an implicit backing for the Saudi regime and sends a message to its citizens and the wider region that their aspirations for human rights and democracy are of less importance than BAE's profits.

Andrew Smith is a spokesperson for Campaign Against Arms Trade. You can follow CAAT at @wwwcaatorguk

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