It’s time Britain opened its eyes and changed tack on Saudi Arabia

Matt Gillow

October 14, 2018

It’s very rare that I – a free-market liberal – find myself agreeing with Owen Jones. Our only personal interaction up to this point was the Guardian journalist telling me I was “getting nationalised” outside Tory party conference. So, when I found myself not only nodding while reading one of his tweets but actually retweeting him, I was momentarily taken aback.

The case in point: the Natural History Museum decided to allow the Saudi embassy to go ahead with an evening function on its premises, despite recent accusations that the Saudi authorities authorised and carried out the brutal murder and dismemberment of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi – and he isn’t the first person to mysteriously disappear either.

Yet for some reason, plenty on the right seem committed to turning something of a blind eye to the grotesque Saudi regime. Whether that’s because Owen Jones has taken the helm in campaigning on the issue, because of trade links, or because of some ridiculous notion that because a “liberal” crown prince is now allowing women to drive, we should accept some “minor” indiscretions like putting a journalist to death inside the Saudi consulate in Turkey.

I, for one, take exception to the idea that because the Saudi regime isn’t beating women for taking the wheel anymore, we should turn a blind eye to them stoning gay people to death, or hail “modernisation” as Boris Johnson did when he was foreign secretary. Just because Cuba under Fidel Castro spent a good wedge of GDP on the healthcare system doesn’t mean we overlook the concentration camps. Just because the Philippines under Duterte has schmoozed Donald Trump doesn’t mean we praise his policy on drugs.

Generally, throwing ourselves into foreign affairs with bared teeth hasn’t borne fruit for anybody involved, and I wouldn’t advocate a more aggressive foreign policy (particularly not in the Middle East), but we can certainly choose where and how to direct our soft power – and it shouldn’t continue to be used to enable a grotesque Saudi regime.

The fact-checkers on Britain’s arms trade with Saudi Arabia is damning and morally reprehensible, even if the government has been cleared of enabling war crimes in Yemen. Between 2015-16 alone, the government approved arms deals worth £3.3 billion. In December 2016, Michael Fallon, then-defence secretary, admitted that British-made cluster bombs had been dropped in Yemen.

Yet, the government has repeatedly ignored calls to scale back trade with the Saudis, arguing that it’s deeply important to uphold good relations with our “key ally in the Middle East”. This argument seems to suggest that it’s impossible to uphold good relations and influence in the region without effectively facilitating war between regional actors.

The Foreign Office itself has previously listed Saudi Arabia as “a country of concern” when it comes to civil rights. Indeed, Yemeni human rights activists have suggested that the UK can’t claim to be a champion of civil rights while simultaneously enabling horrors in far-flung regions.

Turning a blind eye to awful regimes for partisan interests is becoming a real issue in our polarised political climate. The left makes excuses for Venezuela because they don’t want to admit that socialism has failed there – as it has wherever it’s been implemented. The right makes excuses for the Saudis because they value a hawkish foreign policy in the Middle East – and perhaps because they don’t want to admit that Owen Jones is on the money with this one.

Regardless of the philosophical differences that separate left and right, our exports to Saudia Arabia are not morally justifiable. Indeed, when people like Owen Jones and I are both taking up arms against a regime, it’s pretty safe to say that it should be universally condemned.

It may be true that our influence over the Saudis comes from trading links with them. But so far, that influence hasn’t managed to stop them from committing human rights violations in Yemen, it hasn’t prevented them from murdering dissidents across borders, nor has it steered them away from one of the most regressive domestic policy agendas in the world. Britain, it’s time to change tack.


  • Matt Gillow

    Matt Gillow is co-founder of 1828 and communications and events manager at the British Foreign Policy Group.

Written by Matt Gillow

Matt Gillow is co-founder of 1828 and communications and events manager at the British Foreign Policy Group.


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