According to news reports, David Cameron has cancelled a deal to supply prison services to Saudi Arabia.
Frankly, I don’t believe it. At least, I don’t believe that Cameron has stood up to the Saudi regime. If the prison deal has been cancelled, I am sure the Saudis have been offered something else instead. My experience of campaigning about UK-Saudi relations over the last decade has taught me never to underestimate the willingness of the UK establishment to submit to the desires of Saudi princes.
The prison controversy is not the only Saudi-related issue to appear in the British news today. A 74-year-old British man has been sentenced to 360 lashes for possession of home-made wine. The Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) has pointed out that the Cameron-Clegg government licensed £4bn worth of arms sales to Saudi Arabia between 2010 and 2015. Recently, it was reported that UK officials played a major role in helping Saudi Arabia to retain its absurd position on the UN Human Rights Council.
The Saudi regime remains the biggest buyer of British-made weapons. They have almost certainly been used by Saudi forces against civilians in Yemen and Bahrain.
Former Foreign Secretary Robin Cook wrote that, under Tony Blair, the chairman of BAE Systems had the “key to the garden door at Number Ten”. It dosen’t look as if Cameron has changed the locks.
The UK’s loyalty to the Saudi dictatorship makes a mockery of almost every announcement the government makes about human rights, democracy and terrorism.
Ministers denounce dictators such as Assad in Syria, but bow to the wishes of an equally vicious dictator in the same region. They express horror at beheadings by ISIS, but don’t mention that beheadings in Saudi Arabia have doubled in the last year. Tony Blair stated that one of the reasons for invading Afghanistan was to improve the status of women; as the comedian Mark Steel put it, perhaps Blair thought that his ally Saudi Arabia was a feminist paradise. Cameron accuses Jeremy Corbyn of being “terrorist-sympathising”, but when it comes to the terrorists running Saudi Arabia, Cameron goes far beyond sympathy: he sells them weapons.
I had always known that the British establishment was subservient to the Saudi regime, but I did not realise the extent of this until I saw it first hand.
In 2006, I was working for CAAT when Tony Blair interfered in a criminal investigation and pressured the Serious Fraud Office to drop its inquiries into arms deals between Saudi Arabia and BAE Systems.
The decision followed an intense media campaign by the pro-BAE lobby, with certain papers making wildly inaccurate claims about the number of jobs dependent on a new arms deal with Saudi Arabia (their inaccuracy was demonstrated when the deal went ahead, creating almost no new jobs in the UK). The Saudi regime had said they would cancel the deal if the investigation went ahead. Blair claimed that he had accepted this demand for the sake of “national security”, as the Saudis had also threatened to abandon intelligence co-operation that would help in the fight against terrorism. In other words, Britain was faced with a terrorist threat – and simply backed down.
CAAT, along with The Corner House, took the government to court. In 2008, the High Court ruled that the authorities had acted illegally by cancelling the investigation. There was outrage in the right-wing media (“Judges blow to war on terror” ran the headline in the Sun).
The impact of this was brought home to me when a Conservative MP angrily told me and a colleague that “If you knew half the damage you’ve caused to UK-Saudi relations, you’d be shocked”. I was not shocked; I was delighted.
Such damage could have been caused only if the Saudis were used to getting everything their own way in their relations with Britain. Sadly, the government appealled to the Law Lords who overturned the court’s ruling. UK-Saudi relations apparently returned to normal – but public awareness of the problem was growing.
British subservience to Saudi is the nastiest aspect of British foreign policy and it urgently need to become a major political issue in the UK. Let’s not just end one prison deal, but this whole foul and subservient relationship.