This week was the first time that many heard the name Karl Andree, a British grandfather in Saudi Arabia who has been sentenced to 350 lashes for the ‘crime’ of making wine. Journalists and politicians have been rightfully appalled by his treatment, but unfortunately all too common from a government whose brutality and repression has become widespread and systematic.
Over recent months, the close relationship between the UK and the Saudi regime has come under greater scrutiny. This follows the punishment of blogger Raif Badawi, who was sentenced to ten years in prison and 350 lashes, and Ali Mohammed al-Nimr, who was sentenced to death by crucifixion for taking part in protests.
It is perhaps no coincidence that it was the same day newspapers led with Andree’s punishment that Michael Gove announced the government was cancelling a £5.9 million deal that would have seen the Ministry of Justice providing prison services to the Saudi authorities.
This is the first time in years that any UK government has been forced to publically stand up to an increasingly repressive Saudi dictatorship that over recent months has doubled beheadings, reaffirmed its anti-LGBT laws and even made atheism a criminal offence. Gove’s announcement was a striking contrast from only two weeks ago when it emerged that the UK had taken part in ‘vote swapping’ to ensure the Saudis were represented on the UN Human Rights Council.
Unfortunately the UK connection with Saudi Arabia extends way beyond prisons. The historically uncritical relationship is underpinned by mutually back-slapping state visits and a close military relationship which has seen Saudi Arabia becoming one of the UKs closest allies in the Middle East and by far the biggest buyer of British weapons. There is no indication that any of these things will change.
Over the last five years the Coalition government licensed almost £4 billion worth of arms to the regime; including fighter jets, armoured vehicles and small arms. Unfortunately, despite Gove’s intervention the current government is unlikely to change this, with the Defence Minister, Michael Fallon, having recently announced that the Ministry of Defence will be stepping up its role in promoting arms exports.
Only a month ago the Saudi military was represented in London at Defence & Security Equipment International 2015, one of the largest arms fairs in the world, where they were invited to rub shoulders with senior civil servants, government ministers and military personnel. At the same time as thousands like Karl Andree were suffering in prisons their captors were being glad-handed and welcomed to London to shop for weapons.
The support is nothing new and can be characterised as institutional rather than party political, with past Labour government having invested just as much time and political capital in promoting arms sales to the Saudis. In 2008 Tony Blair was criticised after intervening to cancel a Serious Fraud Office investigation of a multibillion-pound arms deal between Saudi Arabia and BAE Systems.
One of the reasons for this is because of the level of integration between the UK and Saudi defence programmes. Around 240 UK Ministry of Defence civil servants and military personnel work in the UK and Saudi Arabia to support the contracts through the Ministry of Defence Saudi Armed Forces Programme (MODSAP) and the Saudi Arabia National Guard Communications Project (SANGCOM).
The human cost of Saudi aggression extends beyond its own borders, with UK-sold arms having been used by Saudi forces in Bahrain and UK fighter jets and bombs being used in the unfolding humanitarian catastrophe that is being unleashed on the people of Yemen. UK cooperation has been key to the campaign, with bombs earmarked for the RAF having been transferred to Saudi forces.
The cancellation of the prison contract is definitely a welcome move, but it must only be the start. There is a real hypocrisy at the heart of UK foreign policy and it is embodied by the approach successive governments have taken towards Saudi Arabia.
Western arms sales and fawning support from government ministers haven’t just provided military support for the dictatorship; they have also sent a statement of political support for the repression it has presided over.
They also send a message to those like Karl Andree, Raif Badawi and Ali Mohammed al-Nimr that their rights to human rights and democracy are a lower priority than steady oil supplies and arms company profits. How many more like them will be tortured and brutalised before the UK finally says that enough is enough?