The Tories’ friendship with Saudi Arabia stretches our trust to the limit

Are UK jobs more important than standing up for human rights?

Riyadh’s ‘Chop Chop Square’

In recent months the Conservative Party’s friendly relations with the Saudi Arabian government have been highlighted and attacked by people from across the political spectrum.

Saudi Arabia’s recent mass beheading of a mixture of jihadists, religious dissenters and a prominent ‘moderate’ Shia cleric has revived the deep rift between Saudi Arabia and (Shia) Iran and highlighted Britain’s close relations with the Saudi state.

The death of the cleric, Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, highlighted the Saudi’s deep distrust of religious dissenters and the centrality of Islamic fundamentalism to the Saudi government. Nimr al-Nimr stood accused of ‘disobeying the ruler’, ‘inciting Sectarian strife’ (but not violence) and of firing a weapon at Saudi security forces – though there is no evidence of the latter.

Al-Nimr was not one to mince his words, rejoicing at the death of Saudi Arabia’s interior minister Crown Prince Nayef Abdul-Aziz al-Saud and stating that he hoped Abdul-Aziz al-Saud would be ‘eaten by worms and will suffer the torments of hell’. But nasty comments do not justify execution.

Conservative MP Daniel Kawczynski argued that Nimr al-Nimr was guilty of ‘plotting terrorist activities’ and refused to condemn the killings, though he also stated that he finds the death penalty ‘unpalatable’. What kind of politician thinks beheading a controversial activist is ‘unpalatable’ but essentially fine?

The answer is the kind of government which arms and collaborates with one of the world’s most violent dictatorships. A government which went so far as to honour and praise the dictator King Abdullah, when he died last year.

Philip Hammond, the Conservative foreign secretary, also refused to condemn the actions of the Saudi government, preferring to point out Iran’s appalling human rights record. David Cameron eventually offered criticism of the Saudi government’s actions, stating that his government has ‘disagreements’ with Saudi Arabia but also stressing the need for close relations.

Kawczynski has pointed out that 100,000 British jobs are dependent on our close relations with the Saudi state but this simply portrays the government as willing to barter away any sense of right and wrong.

Saudi Arabia is not just a regular human rights abuser with a conservative set of religious doctrines; it is arguably the most fundamentalist nation in the Islamic world. Like ISIS it practices crucifixion as a form of punishment.

Saudi Arabia is the main financier of Sunni terrorist groups, which includes Al-Qaida and ISIS. The Saudi government has not been accused of funding terrorism directly but of turning a blind eye to wealthy Saudis involved in funding groups including ISIS, as well as being the foremost proponent of Salafism – the ultra-traditional form of Islam which influences ISIS.

This is done by investing in mosques, madrasas, cultural centres and missionaries which preach Salafism on a global scale, including in Britain and across the Middle East. It is plausible that this funding is one of the main sources of the resurgence of Islamic fundamentalism in the last few decades. Robert Fisk is perhaps right to call the Saudis the ‘spiritual mentors’ of ISIS.

The government’s willingness to work alongside the Saudis in their war in Yemen is equally disturbing. The Saudis have bombed a refugee camp, allegedly bombed a busy marketplace, declared an entire governorate (province) to be a military target (effectively classifying countless civilians as legitimate targets) and, according to the UN, have also bombed schools and hospitals.

The Saudis’ thuggish tactics in Yemen clearly amount to war crimes, and prove that the Saudi state is not only dangerous domestically but is also a threat to innocents internationally.

Britain’s relationship with Saudi Arabia is unlikely to end soon, but the Tories’ fraternal relations with a Salafist police-state is disturbing and embarrassing, even if it isn’t necessarily surprising.

For a government which wants to repeal the Human Rights Act, having close relations with the Saudis is not very good PR. For a government which wants to appear tough on national security and moral in its foreign policy, having close relations with Saudi Arabia is farcical.

Adam Peggs is a student and blogger who has previously contributed to Leaders of the Opposition and Labour Briefing. Read his blog here.

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