Should America and the UK finally stand up to Saudi Arabia?

Muhammad bin Salman (Deputy Crown Prince, Second Deputy Prime Minister and the Minister of Defence of Saudi Arabia) in a bilateral meeting with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg

Saudi Arabia is a significant trading partner in both the UK and the US. In 2017, Britain earned a £1.8 bn surplus from the trade of goods, and in 2018 the US exported over $1.4bn worth of arms alone to Saudi Arabia. Both export masses of arms to the country every year.

However, doubts have been raised concerning these relationships with Saudi Arabia due to the country’s oppressive government and subsequent lack of human rights protection.

For over 4 years, the Saudi coalition has led air campaigns against Yemen, which the UN has accused of targeting civilians in a “widespread and systematic manner”. Furthermore, RAF personnel are currently deployed as engineers and help train Saudi pilots. Since the campaign began, £6.2bn of British arms have been used in the war.

The British government has been alleged of turning a blind eye to the actions of the Saudi government in order to safeguard the trading partnership. In 2017, the Home Office refused to publicise a report into the financing of terrorist organisations in the Middle East. MPs have said that the report reflected poorly on Saudi Arabia and thus the government was anxious about offending their closest Middle Eastern ally.

It is not just trading with the West that has been brought into question. British boxer Anthony Joshua’s recent fight in Saudi Arabia sparked considerable controversy. Due to the country becoming an increasingly popular venue for these boxing matches, Amnesty International said such fights were being used to “sportswash” the country’s image and conceal its human rights crackdowns.

This week, the POI editors will debate whether it is right for the US and the UK to continue their close relationship with Saudi Arabia despite the clear violations of human rights its citizens face – although most of our editors come to the same conclusion…

Written by POI correspondent, Emer Kelly

Economic gain over moral loss – Liberal article

One of the most prominent stories in the past few years to come out of Saudi Arabia has been the extrajudicial execution of the Washington Post Journalist Jamal Koshoggi, and the continued human rights issues surrounding the case.

Most recently this case has led to Saudi Arabia sentencing five men to the death penalty, described by a human-rights expert as “typical Saudi justice”. The trial was held in secret. Very few were allowed to attend and those that did were sworn to secrecy, not something you break in a country like Saudi Arabia. Most conspicuously (although probably unsurprising) was that the three men widely believed to be culpable were seemingly unscathed.

This is certainly not the only human rights abomination to have occurred in Saudi Arabia in recent history, and not the one that has led to the loss of most lives. But it is one that has caught the attention of Western media, and along with other atrocities, brought questions surrounding Britain’s relationship with Saudi Arabia to the table.

Reactions amongst the UK are mixed and inconsistent. At the beginning of December, we saw one of the most anticipated sporting events of the year taking place in Saudi Arabia. Anthony Joshua seemingly turned a blind eye when questioned as to whether his appearance would tarnish his status as a role model. He responded, “I just came here for the boxing opportunity. I look around and everyone seems pretty happy and chilled. I’ve not seen anyone in a negative light out here, everyone seems to be having a good time”. An extremely naïve, and somewhat concerning reaction. A job is a job, but at least some awareness and candour that he will be fighting just six miles from a public execution site would not be amiss.

On the other hand, athletes such as Rory McIlroy have turned down large appearance fees for European Tour events in Saudi Arabia, citing both morality and the opportunity to play in other events as key reasons. Turning down a £1.9m purse just for an appearance in the event seems to show clear disapproval of the political status of the country. It is evident that the UK is split in opinion, but I would hope this is due to a lack of awareness and engagement with the issues at hand.

Earlier this year a British former technician stationed in Saudi was quoted in The Guardian, saying that if the UK support was withdrawn from Saudi Arabia “in 7 to 14 days there wouldn’t be a jet in the sky” with reference to the bombing of Yemen. In addition to the deaths caused directly from bombings, it is estimated that the aid blockade imposed by the Saudi coalition has caused the death of 85,000 infant children.

Back in 2018, when Theresa May was in office, the PM defended our relationship with Saudi Arabia. Claiming cooperation had saved many lives, and in fact, our influence helped lift the blockades in December of 2018. But can our government really justify such close engagement with a country which so clearly goes against the basic human rights and moral codes that Britain holds so dearly?

It is worth noting also, that this issue cannot be pinned on a particular government, and also won’t be fixed without cross-party collaboration and consensus. If Corbyn was in office he did ‘promise’ to do things differently in terms of relationships with Saudi, and he openly spoke out condemned the Government in early 2018 for “colluding in what the United Nations says is evidence of war crimes”. But it was New Labour who signed the initial arms deal, and Theresa May who welcomed Mohammad bin Salman, Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia and the second most important position in the country, to his London state visit.

Despite damning reports coming from the UK’s involvement in Saudi Arabia, it seems there are no steps in place to change our relationship in the future. When our current PM, Boris Johnson, was Home Secretary back in 2016 he recommended the UK to continue selling bomb parts to Saudi, just days after an airstrike in Yemen killed 14 civilians.

It also seems that impending Brexit has a role to play with the UK not wanting to cut any ties it might have outside of the EU. But, where does this leave us morally as a country? Is it not abhorrently hypocritical to, on the one hand, condemn the actions of Saudi Arabia, but simultaneously fund (or at least aid) their actions? Should countries such as the UK and the USA suffer economic losses, potentially causing harm to their own citizens, by stopping trade with a country that is not complying with Human Rights agreements?

I am afraid I am not knowledgeable or qualified to even attempt to answer these questions. But what I do know is that it cannot be right for the UK – a country which itself holds human rights and civil liberty at its core – to be aiding and abetting such tragedies. We must seriously question what role we are playing, and how we can help those most vulnerable to the injustices being carried out by the leaders of Saudi Arabia.

Written by Chief Liberal writer, Olivia Margaroli

Point of Information

Saudi has too strong a grip on the Venture Capital world – a Labour response

A great, well-cited article from my Liberal colleague. We need to work on, not just how our government and allied governments respond to Saudi Arabia, but also how our celebrities and private firms do. As McIlroy has shown, it is possible to resist the allure of easy money from playing there, and I commend him for doing so.

The same principles need to be applied not just to our celebrities, but also to other takers of Saudi money – Venture Capital. Thankfully after Khashoggi’s murder, many VC companies and government officials refused to attend Future Investment Initiative, an annual investment forum held in Riyadh.

Unfortunately, this trend did not hold as Softbank, holder of the gargantuan $100 billion Vision fund, continued their relationship with the Kingdom. Steve Mnuchin, the US Treasury Secretary, and Jared Kushner, the President’s son-in-law and advisor, both boycotted the ‘Davos in the Desert’ in an apparent show of defiance after Khashoggi’s death, but then reconsidered and attended this year’s event.

If we are to try and take action against Saudi Arabia and their human rights abuses, it cannot be just from our government. We should take inspiration from the Anti-Apartheid movement of the 1980’s, which was successful in its goals due to its widespread support, pressure, and solidarity. It used individuals, organisations, governments, political parties, trade unions, and the United Nations to push its message. If we emulate this movement and it’s Boycott, Divest, Sanction (BDS) tactics some real change may be had.

Written by Labour writer, Daniel Orchard

Not aware, just unwilling – a Conservative response

I would have to agree in full with this article, and Ms Margaroli does a good job of highlighting the extreme moral issues created by the continued financial support of Saudi Arabia. We need to create a more consistent foreign policy that protects the vulnerable and prioritises human rights over insignificant economic benefits.

I would, however, argue that the political split on opinion has little to do with a lack of information. Any party or politician that claims this simply has their head in the sand. We have been made aware of the human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia, and therefore the Governments lack of action is simply down to the fact that they are too financially invested.

Written by Conservative writer, Eleanor Roberts

Humans Rights must trump gun sale profits from Saudi Arabia – Conservative article

The world heavyweight title fight was held this year in the capital of Saudi Arabia. Just 6 miles away from where Joshua and Ruiz were housed is the infamous Deria Square, the “Chop Chop Square”, where hundreds of public beheadings have taken place. To this day, the Government in Saudi Arabia enforces strict Wahhabi religious laws, under the control of the absolute rule of the Saudi Royal Family.

For years, the Government and Royal Family have faced strong accusations of serious human rights infringements, and the regime within the country is consistently voted bottom in the “Freedom House’s annual survey of political civil rights”. Despite copious amounts of damning evidence, Saudi Arabia remains a strategic ally for both the US and the UK. Democratic countries have hypocritically turned a blind eye to the behaviour of Saudi Arabia for their own military and trade benefits. Counter-arguments can no longer be justified, and there are numerous crimes, cover-ups, and allegations that must be properly investigated.

Saudi Arabia and the US have been allies since 1933, and since 2009 the US has sold them over $100 billion in arms. It is no secret that George W. Bush and Obama created strong relations with senior members of the Saudi Royal Family, and were willing to overlook many of the controversial issues within their country. It is clear that as long as Saudi Arabia maintained oil production that continued to support US security policies, the Allies would continue to back one another.

However, we must ask ourselves whether the US and the UK can justify working with one of the top destinations for human sex trafficking in order to strengthen trade agreements. Even after the cover-up of the murder of the Washington Post journalist Khashoggi, Trump continues to defend the US’s ties to the Kingdom, due to the fact that they are a key trading partner. Despite other European nations, such as Germany, Finland and Denmark cancelling all arms deals with Saudi Arabia after this controversial event, both the US and the UK continued their various arm deals with the Kingdom. I believe that the US and UK should implement similar restrictions on their relationship with Saudi Arabia, as key players in International Relations they need to be setting an example.

Arguments have been made defending a continued partnership with Saudi Arabia, none of which seem to have any successful evidence. Theresa May said that ‘an even deeper partnership with these countries, and greater knowledge and understanding of one another, will increase our ability to address the issues that concern us”. The suggestion that direct diplomatic engagement will allow the UK to export their democratic belief system onto a incredibly backwards and oppressive system of politics is utterly illogical and proven to be impossible.

Practically no progress has been made in Saudi Arabia, and there is little to no evidence on any positive influence that either the UK or the US has had on the Kingdom. In fact, there could even be evidence that Saudi Arabia is instead having a negative impact on the UK. Unfortunately the UK has a history of covering up allegations of “corruption related to arms deals with Saudi Arabia”.

Furthermore, the economic value of this “relationship” is debatable, as the goods sold by the UK to Saudi Arabia represent only 1% of the UK’s total exports (2016). So why is the UK still continuing to support a country that directly breaks the very international laws that they were apart of creating?

Saudi Arabia has been leading a coalition of states fighting rebels in Yemen from 2015. Since then, there have been allegations of airstrikes aimed at civilian targets, further cementing the enormous human rights abuses being carried out by Kingdom. This creates further issues for its allies as there is repetitional damage which comes alongside providing diplomatic support to Saudi Arabia. The tactics of Saudi Arabia go directly against international laws, designed by democratic nations to ensure a peaceful and stable world. Both the UK and the US have a global duty to defend and uphold this international rule-based order.

What happens when a country’s economic interests get in the way of its values and international obligations? The UK and US governments have continued to send arms to a country that in 2018 bombed a school bus leading to the death of 40 school children. No amount of economic benefits should lead to the compromise of a decent human rights foreign policy.

Written by Conservative writer, Eleanor Roberts

Point of Information

The public must be more aware of Saudi propaganda – a Labour response

First of all, for once, I agree with every point my conservative colleague has made. All I would like to do is further explore the point Ms Roberts mentioned in her opening line – the Joshua v Ruiz fight. This is not a single one-off event to draw people to Saudi Arabia. It is part of a coordinated PR campaign to improve the world’s perception of the nation and its royal family.

Starting approximately three years ago when Mohammed Bin Salman became the Crown Prince, millions of pounds have been allocated to numerous PR firms, mostly based in London. This money has been spent on films, series, and other media projects; more recently they have turned to Instagram ‘influencers‘ to improve Saudi’s image. Entire trips to the Kingdom are planned and paid for, as long as they are broadly advertised with plenty of positive hashtags.

Whilst some of these PR firms and influencers have withdrawn their services due to public backlash, many still take the money and in part help to coverup the atrocities that happen there. I am not saying the British government should try and ban these deals, but just that the general public should be made more aware of them and should call out their favourite accounts if they take part in them.

Written by Labour writer, Daniel Orchard

An strong argument against May’s case for a close relationship – a Liberal response

I must commend my Conservative colleague for writing an extremely lucid and pertinent article on, what I think we can all agree, is a difficult and extremely large topic.

Like the other articles, the topics of Khashoggi, the recent Joshua fight, and US relations have been raised and well analysed. I particularly endorse where the article takes arguments supporting our relationship with Saudi Arabia and explains why they are illogical and inconsistent.

This, for me, must be the way forward in our collective argument. Almost every argument for the constriction of relationships between countries like the UK and Saudi Arabia has been put forward by various political actors and academics, but these are seemingly are not having influence. Instead, there must be time and energy put into clearly analysing the arguments in support of our relationship, and explanation as to why they do not hold when looked at them anywhere beyond the surface level.

Written by Liberal writer Olivia Margaroli

We must remove our support politically, militarily, and economically for Saudi Arabia – Labour article

I am sure my colleagues will go into detail of the Saudi human rights abuses, so I will quickly go over some of them before turning to their moral global humanitarian impact, and what our response should be.

The new Crown Prince, Mohammed Bin Salman (MbS) has made some liberalising reforms including the removal of the ban on female drivers; an amendment in the male guardianship system that had meant women could not travel without the permission of a male relative. However, this is outweighed by the abuses he has directly ordered or been aware of.

Shortly before ascending to his current position he instituted an anti-corruption committee. This is seen by many as a move to consolidate power, or more pejoratively put, a purge to seize power. Over 100 businessmen, government ministers and other members of the royal family were seized and had their assets stripped.

Attacks are not just on the establishment, but anyone counter to it. The CIA has concluded that MbS ordered the assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul, who was visiting the consulate there to get a marriage license. Saudi Arabia has not only attacked the press but other human rights activists. Loujain al-Hathloul, a women’s rights activist, has been imprisoned since 2018 for driving a car before the ban was lifted. In prison, she has undergone electric shock torture.

Other punishments available in Saudi Arabia are flogging and cross amputations – when the opposing hand and foot are removed. Despite all this Saudi Arabia sits on the UN Human Rights Council, where they have only been formally rebuked once in the history of the organisation. Perhaps their position on this council should be reconsidered?

Abroad, Saudi is no better. For almost five years they have been waging a war with and blockading the revolutionary government in Yemen. This war has been aided by US and UK officials who have been “in the room” whilst targets have been chosen. Such targets have included school buses, hospitals, and weddings.

Other abuses include the use of white phosphorus, cluster and double-tap munitions, and the designation of whole cities as ‘military targets.’ The blockade has led to a humanitarian disaster, and some say a genocide, as 13 million people are at risk of starvation. We certainly need to get our officials out of the room, or if they are to stay, they must be proactive in stopping these atrocities.

Whilst the bombing campaign and subsequent starvation in Yemen are horrific, it is at least localised to just a single region. The same cannot be said of Saudi Arabia’s packaging, funding and exporting of Wahhabism, also known as Salafism. This is a literalist, ultraconservative form of Sunni Islam that has been closely linked to the ruling House of Saud since the mid-1700s. It calls for death to apostates, Jews, Christians, and even other Muslim sects. Other Islamic scholars, such as those of the Al-Azhar University in Cairo denounce it as a “Satanic Faith.”

Despite this, it has spread across the Islamic world undermining the tolerance, pluralism and scientific study Islam has been known for. Using Saudi petrodollars, 1359 mosques, 210 Islamic centers, 202 colleges and 2000 schools have been built to proselytise the religion across the world.

This interpretation of Islam has been adopted by Sunni Jihadist groups such as Al-Qaeda, the Nusra Front, and ISIS. The former Imam of Mecca’s Grand Mosque has said that ISIS has “the same beliefs as we do.” I would recommend a read of The Great Theft: Wrestling Islam from the Extremists by Khaled Abou El Fadl to anyone who wants a greater understanding of the divides within the Islamic faith and their different dealings with religious, political, and humanitarian issues.

Now some of the abuses of Saudi Arabia have been demonstrated, what is to be done? What can be done? I am not going to call for the invasion of Saudi Arabia. Another prolonged war in the Middle East will not make things better, especially as we are still in the process of our last one.

I think we should fully ban all sales of weapons to Saudi Arabia and cease logistical support them in conflicts. Whilst this is technically the case in the UK, the government has be caught trying to subvert court orders to that effect, on more than one occasion. More than this, we should encourage our other allies to do the same. Britain should confront the Saudi Crown Prince, Mohammed Bin Salman, more often over his human rights abuses and role in the killing of Jamal Khashoggi. If we are going to promote our supposedly great ‘British Values’ we should be doing so everywhere.

Written by Labour writer, Daniel Orchard

Point of Information

A Conservative response

I completely agree with all the points and solutions made in this article. Mr Orchard has rightfully pointed out the hypocrisy of Britain by continuing to support a country that doesn’t uphold any of the British values our country is attempting to spread.

Undoubtedly selling arms to Saudi Arabia is utterly immoral, and we should aim towards a complete ban of all sales. Steps in this direction are already being taken in the UK. In June 2019, British arms sales to Saudi Arabia have been ruled unlawful by the Court of Appeals in a critical judgment that also accused ministers of ignoring whether airstrikes that killed civilians in Yemen broke humanitarian law.

There is a level of corruption within the courts and the government which has resulted in a lack of appropriate action being taken. However, there are increasing international repercussions for Saudi Arabia, we just need to raise this to a higher level.

Written by Conservative writer, Eleanor Roberts

A great summary of a very complex topic – a Liberal response

As is becoming increasingly common, I must compliment Mr Orchard on writing an article. He does a fantastic job in explaining what is a complex and contentious problem in a coherent and compelling article.

An area I think is often missed in popular media is the back story, here though, this is not missed. To form an opinion and make a good argument, this is of paramount importance, and I am glad Mr Orchard has picked up the proverbial slack from the other writers and done this for us. This is clearly an area he is very knowledgeable in.

I agree with the proposed solutions and hope that there is a consensus that invasion would most definitely not be beneficial in this case. The sales of these arms should be analysed. As I mentioned in my article, it looks like the UK is responsible for supplying weapons that have been used in Yemen that has lead to the death of civilians.

I would like to see more rebuttal to arguments in support of our relationship with Saudi Arabia, as this must be the way in engaging the general public with the issue, which in turn is how we can put pressure on politicians to make a change!

Written by Chief Liberal writer, Olivia Margaroli

Olivia Margaroli
Chief Liberal political writer at | Website

I am second year student reading Politics, Philosophy and Economics at the University of Exeter. Next year I hope to study abroad in Washington DC, a dream for any political student.

Eleanor Roberts
Head of HR & Recruitment at | Website

I’m a third year University of Manchester student, currently studying in Lyon on my Erasmus year (by sheer coincidence I’m writing this hours after parliament has voted to end British involvement in the 30 year programme, so just to be on the safe side I promise not to use the NHS/European Declaration of Human Rights/anything at all anytime soon).

Daniel Orchard
Labour political writer at | Website

My journey into politics is pretty different to what most people have. I can’t claim to have watched PMQ’s obsessively since a young age nor did I pour over the broadsheets for every political factoid I could muster.

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