The public is becoming increasingly aware of the uncomfortably cosy relationship between Britain and Saudi Arabia. That relationship has become crucial for diplomatic reasons, for security and intelligence reasons, and for reasons of business and international trade. So what’s the deal with the Saudi kings?
In the 1980s Britain and Saudi Arabia negotiated one of the world’s largest ever arms deals. Rumours of corruption surrounding the Al-Yamamah deal, worth about £40 billion, soon emerged. The Serious Fraud Office began making investigations into allegations that large sums of money had been paid into anonymous private Swiss bank accounts. The Swiss banks were on the verge of disclosing information in September 2006, but the Saudis put pressure on the British government to call off its investigations. Lobbyists argued that British jobs would be lost if arms deals with the Saudis were adversely affected by the outcome of the enquiry. The attorney general, Lord Peter Goldsmith, announced to parliament that all investigations would cease. Henceforth business with the Saudis could continue more or less uninterrupted.
In November 1999 British Aerospace and Marcone Electronic Systems merged to become BAE. BAE signed a deal with Saudi Arabia in 2006 worth between £6 and £10 billion, and a month later another for about £2.5 billion. In May 2012 there was another deal with Saudi Arabia worth a further £1.6 billion. Thousands of British employees have worked in Saudi Arabia servicing planes and military equipment in recent decades. These results seemed to flow seamlessly from the agreement to call off any investigation into corruption.
Corruption is not the only concern, however, when it comes to British arms negotiations with Saudi Arabia. Amnesty International is currently demanding an investigation into Saudi war crimes in the Yemen. The organisation argues that the British government has known for some time that the weapons it supplies are being used against civilian targets, and that this contravenes international law. The Saudi kingdom is also known for its harsh and inhumane criminal justice system, including execution of juveniles, beheadings, crucifixion, and widespread abuse of human rights.
Although Amnesty International has urged Britain to halt the supply of weapons to Saudi Arabia, David Cameron seems to be in no hurry to do so. The Prime Minister was forced to defend the decision to fly the Union flag at half mast upon the death of the Saudi king earlier this year. He then had to justify spending over £100,000, an unusually lavish amount, on a visit to Saudi Arabia to pay his respects to the Saudi royal family. He argued that the expense was necessary because of the importance of the relationship between the two nations.
In September this year leaked diplomatic communications revealed a secret vote-trading deal which lead to both the UK and Saudi Arabia being elected members of the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in November 2013. This council is one of the most influential bodies of the United Nations. Membership is supposed to be based on a country’s exemplary human rights record. Further leaks suggested that the Saudi’s had transferred $100,000 to bank accounts pertaining to the UK-Saudi campaigns, but it was not clear how the money had been spent. The UK Commonwealth Office refused to confirm or deny anything to do with the leaked allegations.
Bahrain and Saudi Arabia are close strategic allies in the region. They are both nations with Sunni monarchies and significant Shia populations. Bahrain invited Saudi armed forces to help it to suppress civil unrest following the uprisings of the so-called Arab Spring. In November this year, the British foreign secretary, Philip Hammond, attended a ceremony to mark the beginning of construction of a permanent naval base in Bahrain, despite the fact that Bahrain is another country heavily criticised for its human rights abuses.
In October, due to internal diplomatic pressure, Britain pulled out of a £35.9 million contract to run the Saudi prison service. The public was not happy with the idea that British profits would be made running a prison system in a country noted for human rights abuses including summary imprisonment of its political opponents and stoning of women to death for infidelity. The contract had been due to be administered by Just Solutions International, the commercial arm of the Ministry of Justice established by Chris Grayling in 2013. This for-profit branch of the foreign policy department has since been disbanded by the new Secretary of State for Justice, Mr. Michael Gove. It seems Chris Grayling skated a little too close to the wire even for Cameron’s liking.
Saudi Arabia is clearly not best pleased with this about-turn regarding the prison contract, or with increasingly vocal criticism in the UK of the Saudi human rights and war crimes record. The Saudi ambassador indicated the kingdom’s displeasure by intimating that he may take a period of ‘leave of absence’ from London. The British government immediately hastened to set about repairing relations with the Saudis by sending the foreign secretary to pacify the Saudi royals. The threat from the Saudi ambassador has been temporarily rescinded.
There are suggestions that Cameron may make a flying visit to placate the Saudis further before the year end. It is less and less clear which is the tail and which is the dog in this uncomfortably cosy relationship in which we find ourselves. The discomfort seems to be mounting as we head into the new year.