Pillars of Wisdom: Britain’s Saudi Arabia Problem

To the naïve or the literal-minded, relations between the liberal western powers and the Saudi regime in Arabia might seem like an oddity, particularly in the light of post-9/11 political orthodoxy. There is a tension between the “ideological battle” between western democracy and Islamic extremism, which for many of us in the west has defined our nations’ political and cultural direction over the last 14 years, and the desire to do business with the nation that has done more to export such extremism than any other. Sensible people have understood this tension. The ability, exhibited by the western powers, to hold these two positions simultaneously is the guiding principle of 21st century global affairs. And yet for thinking, feeling human beings, it’s still hard not to be troubled. To hear plans for military aggression in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria couched in humanitarian, pro-democracy terms is one thing; to hear it from those who cherish our special friendship with the House of Saud, and excuse our complicity in their gross human rights abuses is quite another.

The U.S. has received much criticism for this from anti-imperialist commentators, from human rights activists, from ordinary people who dislike the hypocrisy of politicians. The UK, however, has received substantially less. When, in 2006, Tony Blair personally intervened to beg his attorney general to drop a corruption investigation into BAE Systems over the Al-Yamamah bribes-for-contracts scandal, the papers reported the story at length. This was juicy stuff. Yet political criticism came exclusively from the Liberal Democrats party, not the Conservatives in opposition. Blair insisted that national security (which in this case, as in most, meant economic security) came first, and that it would be terribly bad news for Britain if the Saudis were to be upset. David Cameron, a Tory leader looking to dethrone Labour at the 2010 election after 13 long, hard years in opposition, had been presented with a golden opportunity to expose Blair as the corrupt, venal nabob he has since revealed himself to be. Instead he kept his silence, and thus the story petered out. Later, Cameron’s party received a £250,000 donation from the wife of Wafic Said, one of those responsible for the Al-Yamamah contracts, in the run-up to the 2010 general election.[i]

Talk of shady arms deals and political chicanery are fodder for policy wonks and conspiracy theorists. There haven’t been too many widely reported human stories to fire the imagination of the general public and turn a truly critical eye on our dealings with the Saudis. Those politicians with an agenda in the gulf may have felt the public were unconcerned by matters so far away. There are signs that this is beginning to change, and these politicians themselves may be responsible. If you bombard the public daily with the message that the Islamist snake is vicious and poisonous and must be eradicated, it can’t be much of a surprise when the public observe that you’ve been focusing too much on killing the body and forgetting to cut off the head.

The initial chink in the government’s armour came in September, when Conservative member of parliament Daniel Kawczynski, a member of the all-party parliamentary group on Saudi Arabia, appeared on the BBC’s flagship current affairs programme Newsnight to propagandise on behalf of the Saudi regime and its brutal aerial bombardment of Yemen. If Kawczynski had a national profile at all prior to this appearance, it was merely as the country’s tallest ever MP. He was soon to be well-known as the country’s most arrogant and obnoxious too. A towering monument to cognitive dissonance, Kawczynski has previously voted in parliament to restrict women’s access to abortions on the grounds that he is a devout Roman Catholic, and voted in favour of gay marriage after he divorced his wife and entered a relationship with a man. In other words his sense of ethics and morality is a touch inconsistent. And so it has proved with his understanding of foreign affairs too. When he is not tweeting his outrage at the liberal appeasers in the Labour party who thwarted the government’s planned intervention in Syria in 2013, thus condemning the good people of Syria to misery and death, he is preaching ever closer union with Saudi Arabia, which he visits – expenses paid by the ruling family – to build business links.

These business links support a thriving arms trade in which $6 Billion worth of weapons have been sold to the Saudi regime since David Cameron became Prime Minister in 2010. They are the reason Kawczynski was invited onto Newsnight, to be interviewed by James O’Brien, the BBC’s patient and bullshit-allergic interviewer. Pressed repeatedly on whether or not he was concerned that Britain might be helping to support a government engaging in war crimes in Yemen, Kawczynski became infuriated and refused to answer, instead using his allotted time to accuse the BBC of ideological bias and Houthi rebel apologia. He is yet to clarify exactly why he is appalled by dead Syrians but not by dead Yemenis. In the aftermath of the interview, Kawczynski threatened to sue the editor of Newsnight, Ian Katz, for tweeting a list of some of the donations he has received from the Saudi regime. As Mr Kawczynski is this writer’s local MP, I contacted him to ask him to answer O’Brien’s question, pointing out that while he is not answerable to the BBC, he is indeed answerable to his constituents. At the time of writing neither he nor his office have responded.

More than the Kawczynski debacle, though, what has really changed the tone of the national feeling towards UK-Saudi relations is the human element – the sense of disgust that, while proclaiming our love of freedom and democracy to the world, our own government is aiding and abetting the repression, torture and slaughter of others. Growing awareness of this started with a trickle of information. Reports of the plight of Raif Badawi, the Saudi political blogger and secularist who has been jailed for 10 years and sentenced to 1000 lashes for criticising the regime received widespread media coverage in the UK. The trickle is fast becoming a torrent, and the various strands of the narrative are now being drawn together, even in the mainstream media, in a way that simply hadn’t been happening before.

An online clip of David Cameron being grilled by Channel 4’s Jon Snow went viral. When questioned about leaked documents showing the UK did a “squalid” deal with the Saudis to ensure each voted the other onto the United Nations Human Rights Council, and asked how he can support the Saudi regime on human rights when its record is so clearly appalling, the Prime Minister failed to answer four times, before insisting “I’ve already answered your question”.

Of course, it would be entirely fair for ordinary Saudis themselves to be outraged by this pact. Cameron’s government has in the past suggested the idea that a repeal of the Human Rights Act might free the judiciary from having to apply pesky human rights even in “trivial cases”. It has been suggested that where human rights and “British values” are in conflict, British values must prevail, though what British values actually are has never been explained. One may reasonably ask why the UK felt the need to ask for a vote to secure one of forty-seven seats on the council. Either those involved believe the UK’s human rights stock has fallen to perilously low levels or else deal-making with the Saudis has simply become compulsive, and is conducted even if and perhaps especially when it isn’t necessary. In any case, Cameron was widely derided for the appearance, having yet to recover from a truly humiliating couple of weeks during which he was accused by his own former party deputy chairman of having stuck his penis in a dead pig’s mouth during a secret society initiation ceremony in his Oxford days. With his animal rights credentials lying in tatters, things aren’t looking so great for his human rights record either.

Cameron was also forced to back down by his own Minister for Justice, Michael Gove, over a £5.9 million deal to use the College of Policing to train the Saudi prison service. David Allen Green, legal blogger at the Financial Times, wrote an extraordinary article recently, referring to a number of freedom of information requests asking for clarification on exactly what the deal, and others like it, would entail.[ii] The meandering justifications given by the various governmental bodies in their FOI rejections can only be described as kafkaesque. They are too long and too bewildering to quote here, but provide an excellent insight into the knots a liberal democracy can tie itself into in order to excuse the company it keeps. The government has since denied that the deal was halted because of the furore over human rights issues, though Daniel Kawczynski evidently does not buy this, heckling his own party members in the House of Commons as the decision was announced, shouting that it was “disgraceful” in front of exasperated colleagues and a bewildered public gallery.

Only days earlier, Cameron told Jon Snow that appeasing the Saudis at any cost was absolutely necessary for national security. It appears that as far as the prison deal goes at least, Conservative party PR trumps national security. It also suggests that public opinion affected policy, a rarity under any circumstances. It cannot be imagined that very much of significance will change, at least in the short term. £5.9 million is small change in the scheme of things, a sop to the hand-wringing bleeding-heart liberals. The big money will keep changing hands, and so will the fighter jets and missiles, but whether the British people have any appetite left for the same old transparent pleas to democratic conscience that will surely be needed to secure support for further intervention in Syria remains to be seen. If naked, cynical greed be our guiding principle, let it be said plainly, and proceed from there. We are losing our innocence.

[i] Rob Evans and Rajeev Syal, “Questions raised over Conservative party donations by businessmen’s wives”, The Guardian (May 28, 2010) Online:

[ii]    David Allen Green, “Hidden agreements on justice and policing: UK’s appeasement of Saudi Arabia”, The Financial Times (October 12, 2015) Online:

Jamie Davidson writes about politics and history. He studied neither of those fields at Goldsmiths, University of London and now lives and works in Shropshire, England. He can be reached at jwdavidson0@gmail.com and @JW_Davidson