Yet again, Saudi Arabia is in the news for another potential human rights violation. This time, the issue at hand is the disappearance of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who was last seen visiting the Saudi consulate in Istanbul last week. Formerly a royal insider, Khahshoggi later became a prominent critic of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and had been living in the USA after several of his friends were arrested in Saudi Arabia. He had been visiting the consulate to get the necessary papers to marry his Turkish fiancé, Hatice Cengiz.
Turkish officials believe that Khashoggi was killed inside the consulate, and have released CCTV footage which is purported to show an alleged Saudi 'hit-squad' landing at Istanbul airport that same day.
While the UK, a close ally of Saudi Arabia, has not been quite so definite on the journalist’s fate, Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt has met with the Saudi Ambassador to discuss concerns over Khashoggi’s disappearance. In a tweet following the meeting, Hunt highlighted the severity of the situation, and insisted that ‘friendships depend on shared values’. While that may be a worthy axiom, it is not one that the British government has put much stock by in the past. Britain and Saudi Arabia are longstanding allies, but in the first four months of 2018 alone the Saudi state carried out 48 beheadings. Sporadic arrests of human rights activists are commonplace and torture is an established part of its justice system.
Jeremy Hunt’s remarkable combination of clumsy phrasing and poor logic might lead one to conclude that Britain has long shared these evident Saudi values of autocracy, suppression and state cruelty. But clearly Britain does not inflict such atrocities against its own citizens. After all, I’m sitting here writing this article without fear of repercussion; I trust that if the situation ever arose, I would be given a fair trial free from torture; I know that I will not be executed by the British state. In a way, that is what makes this friendship even worse: while Britain does not routinely violate the human rights of its citizens, it is more than willing to turn a blind eye while Saudi Arabia infringes the freedoms of its people and, yet further, wreaks havoc on the world at large.
Because of course, the situation with Khashoggi, upsetting as it is, is simply part of the ongoing sequence of Saudi tyranny. The British government’s response is a now predictable outcry, a mere slap on the wrist, that Britain doles out to its Middle Eastern ally whenever it is deemed to have overstepped the mark. Consider Britain’s response in 2015 to the flogging of pro-democracy Saudi blogger, Raif Badawi. Initially sentenced in 2012 for setting up a liberal online forum for religious discussion, Badawi was publicly flogged in 2015. Since then, it has emerged that Badawi could be retried for apostasy, which carries an automatic death sentence in Saudi Arabia. The British response back in 2015 was for Prince Charles to visit Saudi Arabia, the conclusion of his visit being a statement that claimed King Salman’s reaction was ‘not unfriendly’. Meanwhile, Britain has continued strengthening its ties with Saudi Arabia, agreeing a £65 billion trade deal in March of this year.
And all the while we know that Saudi abuses the rights of its people. All the while, we have been faced with evidence that Saudi funding has led to a rise in Islamic extremism in the UK. And we know that our support for Saudi Arabia has allowed their attacks in Yemen to continue to rise in intensity and atrocity. Yet still our government continues to renew ties with a nation that unquestionably needs to be sanctioned rather than supported.
All our condemnations mean nothing when we acknowledge that illegal UK-made cluster bombs have been used by Saudi Arabia in Yemen. We must face up to the fact that our unhealthy relationship with the Saudi state has transformed us from cowardly bystanders into cruel perpetrators of wrong. There may be significant fiscal gains from our ties with Saudi Arabia, but what we lose in integrity more than counterbalances this. In kowtowing to this nation purely because of how powerful it is, the UK is revealing more than economically-motivated greed. In fact, the UK is showing that it has no backbone when it comes to powerful nations like Saudi Arabia.
But power only arises because we invest it in others. If we take away our support, if we openly criticise the Saudi regime, we will only struggle because our support made them so powerful in the first place. By striving to end some of our ties with Saudi Arabia, we will unquestionably be doing the right thing. Beginning that process of separating ourselves from Saudi influence would also set a good example, hopefully starting to lessen some of the global influence they wield.
According to a much quoted phrase, attributed to Winston Churchill, ‘an appeaser is one who feeds a crocodile, hoping it will eat him last’. While our situation with Saudi Arabia may not be one of appeasement, we are certainly feeding that crocodile. Saudi can bring no good to the world at large, or ultimately to the UK itself. And shame on us that we are willing to feed this monster instead of fighting it.