Rather than paying respect to a tyrant, Britain should be extricating herself from legitimising Saudi rule
The death of King Abdullah should not be the cause for obsequious official mourning, but rather offer a natural juncture for Britain to reassess her relationship with Saudi Arabia.
The UK government’s response was clearly out-of-step with the wishes of the British public, who were quick to express revulsion at the entirely unjustified praise and honours heaped upon the dead king. We lowered the flag for Nelson Mandela, to do so for King Abdullah would be farcical were it not so indicative of the dangerous relationship we maintain with Saudi Arabia.
In a small and complex world, any nation has to form ties with others it differs from. No country is uncompromised, no country side-steps realpolitik; but there is a limit to which hypocrisy can be justified by supposed national interest. There also comes a point where that hypocrisy undermines any legitimate criticism of oppressive regimes we choose not to befriend.
Britain’s condemnation of abuses across the world risks being undermined when we fall silent on Saudi Arabia, ranked among the ‘worst of the worst’ in international rankings of freedom and rights.
It is beyond farcical that David Cameron praised King Abdullah for his “…strengthening understanding between faiths” when Saudi Arabia bans the public practice of religions other than Sunni Islam, persecutes Christians, condemns and oppresses Shia Muslims as heretics and punishes conversion, apostasy and atheism with death.
When David Cameron and Prince Charles, both Christians, arrive in Riyadh to pay their respects, they should remember not to take a Bible as ‘smuggling’ one into Saudi Arabia can risk execution.
Tony Blair paid tribute to a man who “Was loved by his people and will be deeply missed” just after tweeting about tackling anti-Semitism. Given Saudi Arabia is not only institutionally anti-Semitic but has been foremost in exporting that hatred abroad, it seemed equally odd for the Israeli president to note his “grounded, considered and responsible leadership”.
When Obama praised Abdullah’s “courage of his convictions” did he mean his commitment to routine beheadings and floggings, oppression of women and LGBT, or maybe simply the ongoing destruction of ancient holy sites in Mecca and Medina, to the dismay of Muslims across the world?
As the rally in Paris stood together saying ‘Je Suis Charlie’ they were joined by the Saudi Ambassador in the knowledge that Raif Badawi had been sentenced to 10 years in prison and a 1000 lashes for ‘insulting Islam’. Charlie Hebdo could not have satirised a more ridiculous farce.
As if these examples of rank hypocrisy were not enough, it is an open secret that Saudi Arabia is the foremost sponsor of Salafist Islamism in the world. It’s estimated that $100BN has been ploughed into exporting ultra-conservative Wahhabi Islam to countries including the UK, and funds for Al Qaeda and the Taliban come from Saudi coffers.
Our leaders unite in condemnation of ISIS atrocities but have they compared the legal code of our friends, Saudi Arabia, with those we are committed to opposing? What are the key differences between ISIS and Saudi Arabia? Both impose oppression and atrocities at home, both export their violent ideology and yet one we oppose and the other we uphold as a friend despite its ongoing funding and support of our enemies.
Like a modern-day Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact, both sides have opposing values, undermine each other, yet maintain the appearance of good relations. Sometimes countries feel the need to pinch their nose and think of the national interest, but when that itself is being attacked by the state-sponsored terror of Saudi Arabia our values seem too high a price for cheap oil.
The British public, the media, left and right have seen the official responses to King Abdullah’s death for what they are. At best farce, at worst an insult to the domestic and global victims of the Saudi regime.
King Salman’s promise of continuity should be a warning to us all. Rather than paying respects to a tyrant, Britain should be extricating herself from legitimising what should be a pariah state.
James Hallwood is chair of the Young Fabians. Follow him on TwitterLike this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.