At a camp for Syrian refugees in Jordan yesterday, a visitor expressed his shock at what he saw. It was, he said, an “unbelievable and heartbreaking situation”. The visitor was Charles Windsor, commonly called the Prince of Wales. His wife, Camilla Parker-Bowles, praised the “strength of spirit” of the women refugees at the camp.
Today, Charles and Camilla visited Saudi Arabia for friendly meetings with Saudi princes. Charles did not say it was “heartbreaking” to see the suppression of political and religious freedom in Saudi Arabia. Camilla did not praise the “strength of spirit” of the Saudi women who challenge state misogyny by driving cars or travelling without a male companion (both of which are illegal). Neither of them said it was “unbelievable” that seven people had just been shot in public by firing squad after an unfair trial for theft.
Indeed, prior to the visit, their spokesperson ruled out any idea of them even mentioning human rights, torture or political prisoners to their royal Saudi hosts.
Once again, I am sickened by the hypocrisy of the British establishment when it comes to Saudi Arabia. It is one of the most vicious tyrannies on Earth and yet Tory, Labour and LibDem ministers have all readily looked the other way for the sake of two industries that rely on UK-Saudi co-operation. They are the arms trade and the oil trade – two of the dirtiest, deadliest, most immoral businesses in the world.
British subservience to Saudi Arabia undermines every comment that any British minister or royal figure makes about human rights and democracy.
Tony Blair, seeking to justify the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, said he was worried by the treatment of women under the Taliban. The treatment of women in Saudi Arabia did not stop him intervening in a criminal investigation in 2006 to ensure that BAE’s Saudi arms deals would not be investigated for corruption.
In 2007, Gordon Brown welcomed Abdullah, the king of Saudi Arabia, on a state visit that saw them sharing a banquet at Buckingham Palace. Kim Howells, then a junior minister, spoke of the “shared values” between the two countries. Shortly beforehand, the Saudi regime had arrested a group of Catholics for peacefully worshipping in a family home.
In 2011, David Cameron condemned Assad’s brutal oppression in Syria. A few months earlier, the Bahraini regime had invited Saudi troops into their country to help them to suppress peaceful pro-democracy protests. They did so with armoured vehicles made by BAE in Newcastle.
And now Charles Windsor has joined in the hypocrisy. Attempts to plead that the royal family are “non-political” just won’t wash. Charles has made comments on all sorts of political issues, from education to the environment. His description of the situation in Syria as “unbelievable and heartbreaking” was political as well as accurate (it would certainly be seen as political if he said it about Saudi Arabia).
The very idea of being “non-political” is a moral and practical absurdity. Neutrality is literally impossible in a context of injustice. Those who respond to oppression by saying they are not taking sides are helping the oppression to continue and thus siding with the oppressor.
Such behaviour by British ministers and royals is nothing new. But Charles is also expected to be “supreme governor” of the Church of England some time fairly soon. This is another good reason for disestablishment. Leaders of churches should not be defending tyrants.