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14 October 2015updated 26 Jul 2021 11:22am

What was the UK’s prison deal with Saudi Arabia, and why was it withdrawn?

Britain has pulled out of a £5.9m jail improvement contract with Saudi Arabia.

By Anoosh Chakelian

What was the deal?

A contract proposal for the UK to provide a prison improvement programme for Saudi Arabia. If signed off, the Saudis would have paid the UK government £5.9m for the service.

What exactly would the Saudis have been paying for?

British expertise in running prisons – providing a “training needs analysis” for Saudi prison service staff. According to legal blogger, Jack of Kent, who has been following this story closely, the intention was for the MoJ to make a profit out of its service, as the deal was on a “commercial basis”.

What’s wrong with that?

The idea of the UK government making money out of a regime with such a lousy human rights record is controversial, particularly in association with its repressive prison system.

So how did it happen in the first place?

The bid was submitted by a body called Just Solutions international (JSi), which was the MoJ’s commercial arm established by the former Justice Secretary, Chris Grayling, in 2013. Its argument was that it would improve human rights standards in foreign jails. It is now defunct. His successor, Michael Gove, closed it down.

Why?

He was against the idea of selling prison expertise to countries with poor human rights records. He reportedly clashed with Philip Hammond, the Foreign Secretary, in cabinet about it. Hammond apparently argued that it would be poor diplomacy to pull out.

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So how come the deal was cancelled?

A number of reasons have been mooted. Downing Street denies the decision has anything to do with the British 74-year-old Karl Andree’s relatives fearing he faced flogging for being caught with homemade wine in Saudi Arabia.

Jeremy Corbyn’s supporters have claimed the Labour leader can take credit after calling on David Cameron in his conference speech to cancel the contract. But Gove has always been opposed, and had been fighting against it long before Corbyn’s intervention. The Times reports Cameron had a private meeting with George Osborne about the matter in the morning (of Wednesday 14 October), gave Hammond one last chance to defend the deal, and heard from officials that there would be no financial penalty for ending it: “It did not take Mr Cameron long to make his decision,” the paper reports.

As The Times also points out, the press may also take some credit ­– Cameron woke up to two frontpage stories on Britain’s relationship with Riyadh on the morning of his first PMQs after conference recess.

> Now read Karen Armstrong’s feature, Wahhabism to ISIS: how Saudi Arabia exported the main source of global terrorism​

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