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When will we see a Saudi-Britain split?

Saudi Arabia
United Kingdom

Saudi Hawks during training. Ronnie MacDonald under a Creative Commons Licence

The 10-year jail sentence imposed on Saudi blogger Raif Badawi last year, and the 50 lashes he received in January, rightfully drew international condemnation.

It was a brutal and barbaric sentence for a man whose only ‘crime’ was to question the Saudi government. Badawi still faces the threat of weekly flogging until he has received a total of 1,000 lashes.

Unfortunately, this is only the latest reminder of the dire human rights situation facing Saudi citizens.

The crackdown has been intensifying: the last 12 months have seen the doubling of executions and the introduction of a new ‘terrorism’ law that treats all atheists and political dissidents as enemies of the state.

The terrible conditions being imposed on Saudi people are only one part of the picture.

The other is the humanitarian catastrophe being unleashed by Saudi Arabia on the people of Yemen. As in all wars, it is civilians who are paying the price, with the death toll recently passing 2,000. The destruction of infrastructure has led the World Health Organization to stress that 8.6 million people are ‘in urgent need of medical aid’.

Regardless of its appalling human rights record, the Saudi dictatorship has had no shortage of international supporters and admirers.

In the last few years it has enjoyed very flattering, high-profile, credibility-boosting visits from leaders such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel, US President Barack Obama, and, from Britain, both Prime Minister David Cameron and a sword-dancing Prince Charles.

These high-profile visits have only served to strengthen the regime’s archaic and authoritarian rule, allowing it to increase its global influence while it continues its repression unabated. In fact, the day after Prince Charles’ recent visit, 7 Saudi citizens were jailed for 20 years for ‘offences’ that included protesting.

This political support is underpinned by a strong military and arms-sales relationship between Britain and Saudi Arabia.

The Conservative-led coalition government of 2010-15 continued Britain’s longstanding policy by licensing £3.8-billion ($ 5.9-billion) worth of arms to the regime. This included licences for combat aircraft, components for bombs, weapon sights and teargas. There is no reason to believe that anything will change under the new Conservative government.

There are human costs for people outside Saudi Arabia too. British weapons were used by Saudi forces against democracy protesters in Bahrain and are being used in the carnage that is being inflicted against Yemen. The bombing of Yemen has been fully supported by Britain, with Defence Secretary Philip Hammond pledging to ‘support the Saudis in every practical way short of engaging in combat’.

We have not only authorized these sales, but have worked hand in glove with companies such as BAE Systems to promote them.

Government ministers have enjoyed a politically intimate and highly compromising relationship with Saudi rulers, and even members of the Royal Family have been co-opted into promoting arms sales. This was evident last year when Prince Charles used a visit to Saudi Arabia to promote Eurofighter sales for BAE Systems.

There are greater internal threats to the Saudi regime than in the past. Wikileaks has just published 60,000 documents which reveal that although the Saudi government is becoming increasingly paranoid about Russia and Iran, it is still practising ‘cheque-book diplomacy’ to reduce what it sees as external threats.

However, the recent bombings of two Shi’a mosques indicate that Islamic State (IS) has gained a foothold in the Kingdom. The attack, which killed 21 people, followed months of increasing tensions. It is unknown how the regime will respond, but if past form is anything to go by, then it is likely to intensify the repression.

What would it take for the British government to change its policy of selling arms to Saudi Arabia? It doesn’t sell weapons to Iran, Syria, Russia or North Korea, not least because of those countries’ appalling human rights records. Why does the same rule not apply to Saudi Arabia?

If whiplashing and locking up bloggers, or the bombardment and destruction of Yemen, isn’t considered a good enough reason to end arms sales, then what is?

Unfortunately, the Saudi regime isn’t even being cautioned; on the contrary, it is being encouraged. The message this sends is simple: the human rights of Saudi people are less important than the profits BAE Systems makes each year.

Andrew Smith is a spokesperson for Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT). You can follow CAAT @CAATuk.

Find out more about CAAT and Stop the Arms Fair’s campaign against DSEI, the arms fair held in London later this year, at which some of the world’s most authoritarian dictatorships will do deals with some of the world’s biggest arms companies.

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