Our values matter more than deals with Saudis
Ministers were last night celebrating their victory in the High Court, which ruled that UK arms exports to Saudi Arabia are lawful. They have no reason to be cheerful, however. The judges in fact concluded that there was “a substantial body of evidence suggesting that the [Saudi-led] coalition committed serious breaches of international humanitarian law in the course of its engagement in the Yemen conflict”.
The ruling was based on a narrow legal point about whether ministers had followed proper procedures and acted rationally in assessing the risks. The Campaign Against the Arms Trade, which brought the case, intends to appeal.
Whatever the result of the legal process, though, it’s time for the government to reconsider Britain’s poisonous relationship with Saudi Arabia, starting with the suspension of arms sales to a country that stands accused of appalling human rights abuses within its own borders as well as the funding of extremism abroad.
What is UK foreign policy for if not the promotion of this country’s values around the world? Surely neither the prime minister nor the foreign secretary could honestly argue that the British virtues of tolerance, liberty and the rule of law are being pursued by Saudi Arabia in the Yemen.
According to the United Nations, more than 10,000 people have been killed in the country, two thirds of them civilians. Schools, hospitals, markets, water points and food factories have been bombed to oblivion. Last October a funeral was hit, killing at least 140 people and wounding 600 — to ensure maximum damage, the bombers returned for a “double hit” as rescuers were helping the injured and gathering the dead.
With only 45 per cent of Yemen’s health facilities able to operate, and sanitation systems destroyed, at least 300,000 people have now been infected with cholera. The United Nations has declared the country a “humanitarian catastrophe”, with 80 per cent of the population in need of help.
In January a report for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs also reached the damning conclusion that “violations of international humanitarian and human rights law continue unabated and largely with impunity”.
Last year the UK committed £85 million to the aid effort in Yemen, making the Department for International Development the fourth largest donor to the crisis.
But the government has also licensed more than £3.3 billion worth of arms to Saudi Arabia since the bombing began in March 2015, including £2.2 billion of aircraft, helicopters and drones and £1.1 billion of grenades, bombs and missiles. One bit of Whitehall is quite literally clearing up the mess made by another.
Although the Ministry of Defence insists that UK personnel are not deployed on operations over Yemen, British-made Typhoon and Tornado aircraft, as well as missiles and cluster bombs, have been involved in Saudi attacks. A joint report by the Commons business and international development committees said last year: “It seems inevitable that any violations of international humanitarian and human rights law by the coalition have involved arms supplied from the UK.”
Even the civil servant in charge of monitoring arms contracts, Edward Bell, head of the Export Control Organisation, wrote in an email: “To be honest… my gut tells me we should suspend [weapons exports to the country].”
The relationship with the House of Saud has for decades been a fundamental principle of British foreign policy for both economic and intelligence reasons. So craven is the Whitehall establishment that the government has refused to publish a report on the foreign funding of terrorism, for fear of annoying its Saudi friends.
Yet this is a country that uses beheading, crucifixion, stoning, amputations and lashings to keep its citizens in line. Although women have just been given the right to vote, they still cannot drive. Saudi Arabia is also demanding the closure of the Qatari-run broadcaster Al Jazeera, an outrageous attempt to interfere in the freedom of the press.
Slowly but surely, the balance between morality and pragmatism in Britain’s relations with the world may be shifting. Labour and the Liberal Democrats have been calling for arms exports to Saudi Arabia to be halted for some time, but now a growing number of senior Conservatives and Foreign Office staff are wondering whether the UK has been naive in its relationship with the kingdom.
“People have started feeling uncomfortable about it,” say one Whitehall source. “Inside the Foreign Office there’s a struggle, with lots of rolling of eyes when Saudi comes up. You’ve got the chancellor breathing down your neck over arms exports and of course counterterrorism has to be on our minds, but there’s a growing sense of unease.”
A senior Tory describes relying on Saudi Arabia for counterterrorism as “like treating pneumonia by drinking tea”, because it, more than any country, is responsible for exporting the Wahhabist ideology on which Islamist extremism is based. “The last three terror attacks in Britain have come as a wake-up call. There’s no outside relationship for which it is worth endangering your own people. The public is not a passive observer of this, it’s becoming collateral damage.”
There is a growing split between liberal Tories who believe there must be a change in the approach to Saudi Arabia and traditional Conservative free-marketeers who remain convinced that arms exports are essential to the UK economy.
Last year Boris Johnson, the foreign secretary, accused Saudi Arabia of engaging in “proxy wars” — he was so furious about the way he was slapped down by No 10 that he briefly considered resigning. Two years ago Michael Gove, now back in the cabinet, persuaded David Cameron to scrap a deal between the Ministry of Justice and the Saudi prison service.
Ruth Davidson, the Scottish Tory leader who has become the voice of liberal Conservatism, also condemned the decision to fly flags at half mast over Whitehall after the death of King Abdullah in 2015 as a “steaming pile of nonsense”.
The changing mood was reflected in a speech by Baroness Helic, a former special adviser to William Hague, in the House of Lords last week. Calling for a review of the sale of all offensive weapons to Saudi Arabia, the Tory peer, a Muslim immigrant from Bosnia, insisted that “our country should never rest on being ‘narrowly’ in the right.
We must always strive to be absolutely sure, and wherever there is doubt we should err on the side of law and our principles.” She’s right. Foreign policy is not just about the letter of the law, it’s also about the spirit of the nation.