Naked Politics Blogger
This is a question I’ve been asking myself since the disappearance and murder of Jamal Khashoggi at the beginning of the month. Jamal Khashoggi was a Saudi Arabian journalist who fled the country in September 2017 to avoid persecution for criticising the regime. On 2nd October, he went into the Saudi embassy in Istanbul to obtain papers to marry his fiancé only to never come out. Despite the initial denial, the Saudis have now said that Mr Khashoggi got into a fight in the embassy, but the murder was not deliberate.
To the West, this caused outrage. Much like the Salisbury case in the UK, the idea that a state can murder one of its own citizens in another country is unthinkable. But why are we actually surprised? Why is our outrage selective when it comes to authoritarian regimes in the Middle East? And why do we only care when it’s on our European doorstep in Turkey but not when it’s in their own region?
The Saudi’s record on human rights is reprehensible, but the West only seems to care when these abuses take place so close to home. The British government is happy to sell arms to the Saudis which are then used in Yemen, causing one of the worst humanitarian crises anywhere in the world. Yemen is now on the brink of the world’s worst famine in 100 years, and while this should be the leading story for any newsroom in the West today, it isn’t.
In 2017, the UK arms deal with Saudi Arabia had a value of £1.13 billion and our bombs are used to kill children and destroy infrastructure in air strikes by the Saudi-led coalition. Our government is happy to sit on its hands and watch the crisis in Yemen, then appears shocked to see those same forces murdering a journalist. It just beggar’s belief!
It’s not just Saudi activity in Yemen that is shocking. The abuse of human rights is never-ending, from sentencing their own citizens to death over their sexuality, lashing women for showing skin or imprisoning journalists for criticising the regime. So why don’t we call this out? Well, a simple and cynical answer would be oil.
On the surface relationships between the West and the Gulf may seem to centre around oil and arms sales but our relationship is far more entwined than at first glance. Economic, political and military ties mean that, unfortunately, the West can’t just switch off support for the Gulf.
Despite this relationship and the way in which the West will usually turn a blind eye to Saudi atrocities, there has been a significant backlash. Therefore, the question becomes; will this outrage have an impact on future relationships with Saudi Arabia for the West? For the most important country in the West, the USA, the answer would appear unlikely. Donald Trump has called the Saudi explanation “credible“. Why a man in his late 50s would start a fight with a dozen men in the Saudi consulate would seem plausible is quite beyond me, but Trump tends to come to the defence of dictators. His lavishing of praise on Putin and Kim Jong-Un should speak volumes about his approach to international politics.
Meanwhile, our Foreign Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, tweeted that ‘friendships depend on shared values’ (although I’m not sure what shared values he is talking about) and International Trade Secretary, Liam Fox, has pulled out of the ‘Davos in the Desert’ trade conference in protest with media companies and sponsort following suit.
The rhetoric may be there initially, but the long-term steps we take against the Saudis will determine our moral standing. With Salisbury, it was easier to retaliate because our relations with Russia were frosty, to begin with, but having a close relationship with Saudi Arabia puts political leaders in the UK in a more difficult position.
The diplomatic methods that could be used are plentiful but whether they will be is a different question. Saudi Arabia is arguably the most important country in the region, so good diplomatic relations are essential and they’ve threatened retaliation for any sanctions introduced, reducing the hand of world leaders.
Going back to the question this article poses, the West only cares about what Saudi Arabia does when it embarrasses us. An ally that can wage war in Yemen is one thing, but when state-sponsored murder is committed in our own sphere and where it will make headlines, it appears that only then do the Saudis show real disrespect for the international norms we created.