As David Cameron arrives in the Gulf with the aim of selling at least 100 Typhoon fighter jets to Saudi Arabia and the UAE, it’s worth recalling the words of his speech to the Kuwaiti National Assembly on 22 February 2011. Back then, as the Arab Spring was erupting, Cameron denounced previous British governments for prioritising commercial ties over human rights. He said:
For decades, some have argued that stability required highly controlling regimes, and that reform and openness would put that stability at risk. So, the argument went, countries like Britain faced a choice between our interests and our values. And to be honest, we should acknowledge that sometimes we have made such calculations in the past. But I say that is a false choice.
As recent events have confirmed, denying people their basic rights does not preserve stability, rather the reverse. Our interests lie in upholding our values – in insisting on the right to peaceful protest, in freedom of speech and the internet, in freedom of assembly and the rule of law. But these are not just our values, but the entitlement of people everywhere; of people in Tahrir Square as much as Trafalgar Square.
But as the PM’s three-day trip begins, we’ve heard much about “our interests” and all too little about “our values”. Downing Street shamelessly declared that the purpose of the visit was “to help Britain compete and thrive in the global race.” It went on: “A central pillar is our defence relationship with the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia given our shared commitment to security and stability and defeating the threats we face in the wider Middle East region.” Yet for the people of the Middle East, as Cameron previously noted, “stability” means autocracy.
While No. 10 went on to make a token reference to the “pursuit of political and economic reform”, it made no effort to disguise the fact that human rights are now of little concern. Indeed, the trip is partly designed to reassure Saudi Arabia after the Commons foreign affairs select committee launched an investigation into UK relations with the country and Bahrain. After Cameron’s laudable words on democracy, the government has reverted to type.