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foreign policy

Why Theresa May Is in No Position to Lecture Saudi Arabia on Human Rights

As Saudi Arabia bombs Yemen, Britain has ongoing secret arms deals with the Kingdom.

Simon Childs

Simon Childs

Photo: dpa picture alliance / Alamy Stock Photo

Hanging out with despots news now, and Britain is "rolling out the red carpet" to Mohammed bin Salman, the crown prince of Saudi Arabia. In case there’s any doubt about how low Britain is bowing, his visit will include lunch with the Queen, dinner with the Prince of Wales and the Duke of Cambridge, a day at the prime minister’s rural retreat, Chequers, and attendance at a meeting of the UK national security council.

Amid the arse-kissing, there are the usual platitudes about how Theresa May will express her "deep concern" about the "humanitarian situation" in Yemen. The humanitarian situation here being: a vicious three-year war between Houthi rebels and Saudi-backed forces that has seen cholera outbreaks, malnutrition and airstrikes on civilians. Mark Lockwood, the UN's humanitarian chief, has warned that Yemen could become the worst humanitarian crisis in half a century, and that the country "looks like the apocalypse". Shadow Foreign Secretary Emily Thornberry wrote in the Guardian today that "the large majority of civilian deaths lies irrefutably at the door of Saudi Arabia", and called Mohammed bin Salman "the architect of that Saudi intervention".

So what’s this all about? Almost a year ago, Theresa May visited Saudi Arabia to shore up support over trade and security with two of Britain's key partners outside the EU. On VICE, Yohann Koshy explained the context:

“The ‘charm offensives’ that May's been leading in Saudi Arabia need to be understood as continuous with British government policy and given a new meaning in the government's post-Brexit orientation to the world – what Downing Street refers to as ‘Global Britain’. Britain doesn't have the luxury of making even superficial criticisms of any potential source of labour or capital. If it loses frictionless access to the European Single Market in two years it will need all the friends it can get. This explains the intensification of that already servile relationship with the most bloodthirsty state in the region.”

In other words, a desperate post-Brexit position has solidified our high placing in the world-evil league, while stripping away the pretence that we’re actually the good guys.

This return visit sees those British interests neatly dovetailing with those of Saudi Arabia. Mohammed bin Salman is determined to project his country as a major economic power. Saudi attempts to diversify its economy beyond oil are providing opportunities for British business, and it is expected that blood-soaked hands will be shook on contracts worth £72 million.

This confluence of interests has a new relevance post-Brexit, but it goes back long before 2016 – mind you, we can’t know the precise details of that relationship because the government is keeping it quiet. In the 1980s, arms manufacturers BAE Systems secured the £43 billion "Al-Yamamah" arms deal with Saudi to sell the Kingdom fighter jets. But as VICE revealed, the Foreign Office is refusing to publish almost half of its files about Saudi Arabia from 1986. Such government files would usually be released after 30 years. The missing files include four about the "Sale of Tornado and Hawk aircraft to Saudi Arabia". One missing file was titled, "Training for Saudi Arabian special security forces". That kind of secrecy is far from historical, with the UK accused of allowing a 75 percent increase in its "open licences system" to cover up the extent of current arms sales to Saudi.

Mohammed bin Salman is seen by some as a modernising force, and his visit is also an attempt to reinvent the image of Saudi Arabia, showing that it is in fact a forward-thinking, reforming society, rather than a theocratic dictatorship. How better to display modernity than with a new billboard campaign employed throughout London and talking up reforms which always refer to Mohammed bin Salman as an enigmatic "He", making him sound either like a benign patriarch ("He is empowering Saudi Arabian women") or like God ("He is bringing change to Saudi Arabia").

Saudi PR efforts are another boon to British businesses and can help keep Britain’s political class in expensive wine. As VICE revealed last week, Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson's top aide left the Foreign Office to join a lobbying firm that is part of a group fending off criticism of the Saudi war on Yemen. Pagefield Global Counsel – a "sister firm" of Pagefield, which employs former BoJo SpAd Liam Parker – was involved in promoting a brochure about Saudi aid to Yemen.

Of course, it would take real cynic to imagine that [deep breath] the revolving door between the British government and lobbying firms that work for dictatorships; the longstanding shared interests between the UK and Saudi Arabia, including lucrative arms deals that have increased during the bloody war in Yemen; or the British state’s secrecy concerning our past dealings with the Kingdom [and breathe] will do anything to undermine Theresa May’s efforts to raise human rights issues with the crown prince.

@SimonChilds13