Naked Politics Blogger
Britain prides itself upon having a long and illustrious history of protecting human rights at home and standing up for and enforcing those values abroad. At the centre of all this high self-esteem is Britain’s place on the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC), a supposed “forum and springboard for action” in protecting and enforcing human rights across the globe. However, our record on Human Rights could be undermined somewhat by our dealings with another member of the UNHRC, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy where the Al Saud dynasty has held a monopoly of power since 1932. The current ruler, King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud, has been seen as a potentially reformist monarch, however he still enforces a strict variety of Sunni Islam, following the rules of Sharia Law, which entails public beheadings, crucifixions and some of the harshest restrictions on women in the world, that seem outdated to anyone who isn’t an advocate of Sharia Law. Saudi Arabia has sanctioned so many beheadings so far this year that it is alleged they have beheaded more people than terrorist organisation ISIL.
Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have continually highlighted Saudi Arabia’s atrocious human rights violations. Amnesty International for instance released a report in August 2015 detailing at least 175 people had been executed over the last 12 months, on average nearly one person every two days and over 100 people have been put to death so far this year. Freedom of speech is also cracked down upon ferociously. On May 2015, a Saudi court sentenced blogger Raif Badawi to 1,000 lashes and 10 years in prison after convicting him of ‘insulting Islam’ by establishing a website which promoted political and social debate within Saudi Arabia, and for criticising a number of religious leaders within the country. So why then would Britain want to have anything to do with a regime that still finds its citizens guilty of witchcraft, oppresses any form of movement towards serious liberalisation and democracy and that has been ranked the fifth most authoritarian government in the World Economist Democracy Index?
Well the answer to this is actually quite simple: Trade. Britain seems to have a special policy specifically reserved for the Saudi’s and the Chinese, to look the other way in terms of violations of human rights and a desperate lack of democracy, in return for trade worth billions of pounds between the two nations. A prime example of this would be the £1.9bn worth of arms exported to the fourth largest importer of arms during 2011-12, despite the protests of many human rights organisations and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) who listed Saudi Arabia as a “Country of Concern”.
The second and probably most important factor is something that any cynic of Britain’s involvement in the East would be familiar with and arguably the most powerful commodity in the world: Oil. Saudi Arabia has the world’s largest oil reserves and is the biggest exporter of oil, producing over 10 million barrels a day in June 2015 at an unprecedentedly low price. Just another reason for Britain to push these hot topics under the carpet if they want any chance of getting hold of some of this cut-price oil. After all, it has been proved that getting on the wrong side of the Saudis has resulted in catastrophic consequences. For instance, in 1973 Saudi Arabia led an oil boycott against the Western countries that supported Israel in the Yom Kippur War against Egypt and Syria, leading to world oil prices quadrupling; manipulation of the oil price for political ends has been a common occurrence since.
Most shockingly of all, Britain and Saudi Arabia entered a ‘secret deal’ concerning their places on the UNHRC so that each nation was voted back in by the other, despite David Cameron openly criticising Saudi Arabia’s human rights record, yet was unable to answer why he was endorsing the Saudis for a place on the UNHRC, potentially demonstrating how this government prioritises trade and International Relations over Human Rights.
However, are we now at a crossroads? In a surprise move, with Saudi Arabia sentencing 74-year-old Briton Karl Andree, to 350 lashes for making homemade wine in a country with strict prohibitions on alcoholic, the government suddenly had a change of heart. This change of heart concerned a £5.9million controversial prison contract to provide a “training needs analysis” for Saudi prison service staff. The change of heart in question came from well-known liberal and every teacher’s poster boy, Michael Gove. This is despite facing fierce resistance from the Foreign Secretary, Phillip Hammond, who is visiting Saudi Arabia to “smooth ruffled feathers” and from the Prime Minister. Gove, the new Justice Secretary, insisted that pulling out of the deal was unconnected to the case of expat Andree, but does show a clear line in the sand on British foreign policy and maybe even a turning point in our stance on Saudi Arabia and human rights.
Overall, this decision on Saudi Prison services is relatively unlikely to cause ripples with our relationship with the Saudis, however many would hope this opportunity should be seized upon so Britain can finally stop having an all mouth and no trousers attitude when it comes to protecting and enforcing human rights as we so love to claim that we do. I firmly believe that with enough international pressure from Britain and other western countries, this dictatorial, oppressive and even terrorist sympathising country, on some occasions, will finally concede into making reforms in human rights and democracy, but this will only happen if these dodgy dealings between us and the Saudis finally come to a dignified end.