Saudi Arabia is a country that is known for, amongst many other sins, dreadful liberties and poor freedom of the press. This distaste for democracy that is adopted by Saudi Arabia leads me to question – why do we have ties with them in the first place? But it’s not just their lack of freedom that alarms me – there is reams upon reams of evidence showing that Saudi Arabia has scores of policies and practices that would make the average despot shudder.
Indeed, Saudi Arabia is known to enact barbaric punishments for minor crimes, and more disturbingly things that aren’t crimes at all – for instance, only a few months ago an elderly British man was sentenced to 350 lashes for owning homemade alcohol, a punishment so fierce that his family feared he would die as a result. As well as this, talking openly about sex, being female and driving a car, insulting Islam, and even being gay can land an individual in jail in Saudi Arabia, hardly the hallmark of a nation that a liberal country should be doing business with. However, they are also known to enact the death sentence to such an extent that the Independent revealed they the third leading country for executing their own citizenry, and the number that are executed is rising steadily with each passing year – quite the accomplishment.
It’s quite plain to see that Saudi Arabia maintains some objectionable practices – but has our history of relations with them given them the means to do more evil? It certainly has – through trade agreements, invasive spy equipment from Britain is currently being used by the Saudi government, giving Saudi officials the ability to hack emails, wiretap calls and hack mobile devices. On top of this gross human rights violation, British-made weapons may also be currently used on civilians in Yemen, used by the Saudis. A U.N report found that a destructive Saudi bombing campaign was in direct violation of humanitarian law – and with a flowing arms trade being adopted between Saudi Arabia and the U.K (almost £6 billion worth of arms has been sold to Saudi Arabia by the U.K), it’s hard not to fathom that weapons made here are being used on innocents in the Middle East by the Saudi government. Although Hilary Benn and Jeremy Corbyn have called upon David Cameron to urgently stop the arms trade, no action has yet been taken.
Whatever benefits we get from having ties with Saudi Arabia cannot outweigh the moral shame of maintaining relations with a country that arrests those who think differently, that kills its own people, that deploys weapons on civilians and that enacts medieval punishments. Our relationship with them only gives this repressive regime more tools to commit atrocities, and our apathy in maintaining this relationship sends out a bleak message to the world that such atrocities are fine – provided the nation in question is trading with us.
If we are serious about tackling tyranny in the Middle East, then let’s start by cutting ties with one of the most oppressive states there. The U.K, as a liberal democracy, should stop dealing with one of the most illiberal nations on the planet if we are to take our commitment to freedom and liberty seriously.
There is good reason for us to condemn the human rights violations of Saudi Arabia. Much, for example, has been made recently of the war in Yemen, unsurprising given that it is being waged with British weapons. It is all too easy for us to condemn the conduct of Saudi Arabia from our position of relative security. Saudi Arabia is on the front lines of the war against violent extremism. The last time we were in a comparable position, our government sanctioned the bombing of German cities. They were under no illusions as to the likely extent of civilian casualties. Indeed, the bombing of Dresden could be considered a war crime by modern standards. In war difficult decisions have to be made as human lives are traded for the promise of a better tomorrow. That was true in 1945 and it is no less true now.
It is sadly naive to think that breaking our special relationship with Saudi Arabia would change anything. We are a tiny island nation with ever diminishing influence on the world stage. If we were to condemn the human rights violations of the Saudi government our complaints would fall on death ears. Saudi Arabia is a stable power and a dependable ally in a region slipping deeper into anarchy with each passing day. Do we really want to squander friendly diplomatic relations for precious little gain?
Let us be in no doubt as to the cost of breaking away from our special relationship with Saudi Arabia. The British arms industry is one of a diminishing few to have held strong in an increasingly erratic global economic climate. It provides stable employment and solid tax revenues, both of which would leave a gaping hole in our economy. Arms manufacture is, loath as we are to admit it, a necessary part of our cultural heritage. The branch of the Royal Armouries located in this very city displays countless examples of weapons manufactured in Britain throughout the centuries. Just as the French are known for producing pastries, we are known for producing arms. If our small nation is to prosper in a global economy, we need to trade off that reputation. Unpalatable arms manufacture may be, but so is the prospect of an economic crash in Britain.
No rational person could possibly find good reason to condone human rights abuses. None the less, if we want to bring about lasting change in the world it will not be through idealistic thinking. The kind of cultural shift which would bring Saudi Arabia’s human rights record more in line with our own takes decades to come about, if not centuries. The Arab Spring serves as a painful reminder of what happens when well intentioned people try to change a nation’s culture too quickly. To end the special relationship would be to sacrifice much in exchange for very little. Much more will be achieved if we use our good relations with Saudi Arabia to influence them towards a more enlightened future.
Images courtesy of PA and Getty respectively