Dan Peacock

Naked Politics Blogger

Since its birth in 1932, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) has surely today established itself as the West’s favourite pantomime villain in the Middle East. With its nominal Gross Domestic Product (GDP) standing at $746.2 billion, Saudi Arabia’s wealth and economic prowess far surpasses that of its neighbours, and its status as the second largest producer of crude oil in the world has many a government queueing up to get a bite of the Saudi cherry.

The UK is one of these seemingly drooling states. The UK government seeks to ‘develop and maintain the long-standing relationship between the UK and Saudi Arabia…especially in the areas of trade and investment, education, culture, energy and climate security, and defence.’ This bilateralism has seen political, economic and military ties between the two states develop and strengthen to this day. As recently as November 2015, David Cameron held discussions with King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud at the G20 Summit, where they discussed the situations in Yemen and Syria and “reaffirmed the strength of bilateral relations between Britain and the Kingdom.” The KSA is the UK’s largest trading partner in the Middle East and the UK is second only to the United States in terms of foreign investment into Saudi Arabia. Moreover, since 1985 over £43bn of military aircraft has been sold to the Saudi government by Whitehall through the Al-Yamamah arms deal, and as recently as 2014 BAE systems agreed to supply 72 Typhoon jets to the Saudi’s in a deal worth £4.4 billion.

In short, we like Saudi Arabia.

However, we shouldn’t. In fact our continued association with the KSA is at best embarrassing, and at worst morally bankrupt. There are two reasons why this is the case, and why we should seriously rethink our relationship with this nation.

The first concerns Saudi Arabia’s human rights record. To say it is poor would be quite inaccurate. It is non-existent. Freedom House ranks Saudi Arabia among the world’s 20 most repressive societies  and lists the Kingdom among a group of states described as ‘the worst of the worst’. The list of Saudi Arabia’s violations of its citizen’s civil and political rights is near endless. It is an absolute monarchy with an outright ban on political parties, freedom of the press and trade unions. Homosexuality is a capital offence, women are not permitted to drive, beheadings and crucifixions are still imposed as a form of criminal punishment and torture is commonplace. The list goes on. To maintain relations of any kind with a state who has been nothing short a pioneer in human rights abuses brings the UK’s commitment to advocating and supporting the advancement of human rights across the globe into serious disrepute. To cash in on the economic and political gains of an alliance with the KSA in spite of the oppression of millions of human beings, displays a palpable moral bankruptcy on behalf of the UK government.

The second reason concerns the current situation in Yemen. For the last year, Yemen has been decimated by a brutal civil war between the government and rebel groups. A Saudi-led coalition has been heavily involved in the conflict, intervening on behalf of the Yemeni government. The UK has been intimately involved in this campaign. British military staff have been directly involved in advising and coordinating Saudi airstrikes, and UK supplied military equipment has played a massive role in the conflict, with £2.8bn worth of arms being sold by UK companies to Saudi Arabia since the conflict began.

But here’s the problem: the Saudi intervention has been far from legal or ethical. Attacks against civilians by Saudi-led campaigns, which are forbidden by International humanitarian law (the body of law that regulates conduct during an armed conflict, Geneva Conventions and all that jazz), have pervaded the conflict according to the UN and International Committee of the Red Cross. The UN has documented 119 Saudi airstrikes which have targeted civilian objects, and even reported Saudi helicopters pursuing and shooting down fleeing civilians. As of March 2016, approximately 3,218 civilians have been killed – half of the total casualties claimed by the conflict so far, and the Saudi-led coalition has been responsible for the vast majority of these deaths. This is a frightening statistic, and one that, by supporting Saudi Arabia, the UK has had direct hand in causing. This is both unlawful and deeply unethical and wrong. In short, this is a very, very dirty war. As British citizens, we should be appalled at the UK’s continued support and friendship with a nation knowingly and deliberately butchering citizens of another state. The longer our complicity in Saudi Arabia’s crimes continues, the more blood continues to pour on our hands.

It is time for the United Kingdom to end its alliance with and support for Saudi Arabia. Our continued association with this rogue state is harming our international reputation as a defender and advocate of global human rights, is in contravention of international law in the case of Yemen, and is morally repugnant. If it continues, it will stand out as a particularly dark footnote in the history of UK foreign policy.

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Last Update: April 28, 2018