On the 2nd January, two days into 2016, Saudi Arabia (Britain’s key ally in the middle east) executed 47 people for ‘terrorism’. 47 in one day. This included the prominent Shia cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr. Many of the individuals executed on Saturday were involved in a series of attacks carried out by al-Qaida from 2003-06, according to the interior ministry. 45 of those executed were of Saudi nationality, alongside one Chadian and one Egyptian. The 47 executions were carried out inside prisons across 12 different provinces in Saudi Arabia. This follows 158 executions in 2015 (a big increase from the 90 people killed in 2014). Human Rights Watch (HRW) has described this as:
the largest mass execution in the country since 1980
Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, a prominent Shia cleric, was sentenced to death in 2014 following a Saudi court convicting him on vague charges largely on his criticism of Saudi officials & calls for pro-democracy demonstrations:
breaking allegiance with the ruler, inciting sectarian strife, and supporting rioting and destruction of public property during 2011-2012 protests in Shia-majority towns and cities.
The announcement from the Saudi Interior Ministry did not specify which men were convicted for which crimes. However it did note that only four of the 47 were convicted of Hadd (limit) crimes for which Islamic law mandates a specific punishment, including the death penalty, while 43 were sentenced to death based on judicial discretion. Sir John Jenkins (a former UK ambassador) has implied that some of Saudi Arabia’s recent executions of al-Qaida supporters were understandable. In an interview with the BBC, Jenkins stated:
Do I think the sentences are justified? Certainly the people accused of membership of AQ [al-Qaida], particularly given what has happened over the past 18 months with these attacks by Islamic State inside the kingdom, I can understand why the Saudis reacted in the way they did.
Al-Nimr was shot four times when arrested, in disputed circumstances, on July 8 2012. Officials claim he resisted arrest and rammed a security forces’ vehicle, leading to a gun battle in which he was wounded. Purported photos of the incident released by the local media show the wounded sheikh slumped in the back seat of a car wearing a bloodied white robe. At the time of the arrest HRW expressed concern that he would not receive a fair trial. In October 2015 Saudi Arabia’s supreme court rejected an appeal against the death sentence. This piece does not intend to analyse the immensely complicated quasi religious geo-political tensions & proxy conflict between the regional powers of Iran & Saudi Arabia. For more detailed examination of this, please be directed to the analysis of Mehdi Hassan, Al-Jazeera correspondent.
Rather this works intention is to critique the nature of Britain’s relationship with Saudi Arabia, in the context of its human rights record. Calls for Britain to re-assess its relationship with the Kingdom are nothing new. Yet, year on year, the Saudi Arabian state faces deserved and growing levels of scrutiny as to its human rights practices. In his party conference speech, Jeremy Corbyn, specifically asked David Cameron to intervene and use Britain’s diplomatic influence to halt the execution of Ali Mohammed Baqir al-Nimr. In a letter to Mr Cameron, Mr Corbyn wrote:
As you may be aware, Ali has now exhausted all his appeals and could be executed any day – in a particularly horrific manner, which involves beheading and the public display or crucifixion of the body.
The Foreign Office said it would raise the case ‘urgently’. Further in part thanks to Jeremy Corbyn & Labour in pressuring the government, this can be seen to have influenced Michael Gove to announce Britain would be pulling out of a £5.9 million deal with the Saudi Arabian Justice Ministry to provide a ‘training needs analysis’ for Saudi prison service staff. Britain’s relations with Saudi Arabia are based on extensive business and investment links, including defence sales and a secretive security connection that is routinely cited as vital by the UK government. It has been described as ‘an important regional partner’ that shares ‘many of the UKs goals in the region’ and ‘critical‘ to the UKs interests.
The relationship between the UK and Saudi Arabia is based on extensive arms trading and oil deals. This is complemented by a strong level of political support and a deafening silence and inaction on human rights. Overall UK-Saudi trade has blossomed in recent years, fuelled by rising Saudi spending through the oil boom years. It is estimated Saudis have invested up to £90bn in British businesses. Saudi Arabia is Britain’s primary trading partner in the Middle East; 200 joint ventures are worth $17.5bn (£11.5bn); some 30,000 UK nationals live and work in the kingdom. Saudi Arabia has been a major buyer of UK weapons since the 1960’s. It was Britain’s biggest defence export market last year according to figures from the Campaign Against The Arms Trade, with nearly £4bn-worth of export licences issued in the past five years.
In the eyes of the UK government, the argument that arms sales of any kind lend moral and political support to unpleasant regimes is not deemed to have weight, even in the context of an ‘ethical’ foreign policy.
Saudi Arabia has been a very lucrative market for British arms firms over the years. British author Nicholas Gilby, in his book Deception In High Places , traces the covert deals and ‘commissions’ that have punctuated the murky relationship between the Saudi government and British arms firms and their representatives, among them members of the British government and Royal Family.
David Cameron meeting the previous King – Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud (1924-2015)
The close relationship between the UK and Saudi Arabia has come under sustained criticism following a continuous string of human rights abuses. In the Huffington Post writer John Wright, commenting on the multitude of human rights abuses enacted by the Saudi state, described this as ‘medieval‘. Amnesty International in its annual report for 2014/15 on ‘The State of the Worlds Human Rights’, delivered a damning verdict on a range of human rights issues. The practice of any religion other than Islam is forbidden. Dissent in any form is heavily punished and crimes are met with the full rigour of the Shari’a law, and sometimes beyond it. The Kingdom is systematic in discrimination against women and religious minorities.
‘Guardianship’ laws essentially treat women as ‘chattels’ or second class citizens. Ministerial policies and practices forbid women from obtaining passports, marrying, traveling, or accessing higher education without the approval of a male guardian. Those detained as a matter of ‘criminal justice’, including children, commonly face systematic violations of due process and fair trial rights, including arbitrary arrest and torture and ill-treatment in detention. Saudi judges routinely sentence defendants to floggings of hundreds of lashes. Judges can order arrest and detention, including of children, at their discretion. Saudi Arabia applies Sharia law. Judges decide many matters relating to criminal offences pursuant to Sharia in accordance with established rules of jurisprudence and precedent, with no formal penal code. In terms of LGBT rights, Saudi Arabia is totalitarian and repressive. Homosexuality is illegal in Saudi Arabia and punishments for those engaging in same-sex relationships include execution, chemical castration and imprisonment.
In a revealing & tense interview with Channel 4 New’s Jon Snow, David Cameron was questioned on a deal between the UK & the Saudis ‘trading votes’ with each other to join the United Nations Human Rights Council in 2013. This ‘consultative group’ helps select the experts who are assigned to examine human rights issues on behalf of the Council. Saudi Arabia has already brought its influence to bear on the council. Human rights groups have expressed alarm at the secretive nature of the deal.
In late September, Saudi pressure squashed a draft Human Rights Council resolution by the Netherlands to establish an international inquiry into human rights violations in Yemen’s war. Under Jeremy Corbyn, Labour has been increasingly critical of Britain’s links with Saudi Arabia. Labour expressed anger that British foreign office minister Tobias Ellwood had described the executions as ‘disappointing’. Feeble condemnation. The shadow human rights minister, Andy Slaughter, condemned the relationship and wrote to the justice secretary, Michael Gove, asking for him to confirm that discussions of judicial cooperation were continuing with the Saudis and calling for them to ‘cease immediately‘. Both Labour & the SNP have called on the Government to review its relationship with Saudi Arabia, raising a series of concerns about the UK’s continued arms sales to the kingdom and offer of support for its judicial system. Former leader of the Liberal Democrats, Lord Ashdown stated:
These executions are deeply, deeply destabilising to the very delicate situation that exists in the Middle East and the danger of a wider Sunni and Shia conflict. The West, including the UK government, is only just realising the danger of this and its implications for long term peace in the region. It poses a far greater danger in the long term than, for example, Isil.
British politicians are increasingly understanding the mood of the public increasingly uncomfortable with the nature of Britain’s relationship with Saudi Arabia. When Prince Charles & David Cameron travelled to pay their respects following the death of King Abdullah, there was angry criticism of the decision to fly flags at half-mast on public buildings in London. Government buildings flew the union flag at half mast for 12 hours on the instructions of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (apparently acting under protocol for the death of a foreign monarch).
Most interesting in this trend are the actions of the all-party foreign affairs committee (FAC). The FAC published a report on UK relations with Saudi Arabia – despite a warning from the embassy of ‘negative consequences‘ for bilateral relations. Yet, the committee had appointed Sir William Patey, former UK Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, as a Specialist Adviser (a man who was hardly likely to have acted in a questioning manner). The committee hosted informal meetings with representatives from BAE Systems, the UK’s largest arms company and major arms supplier to Saudi Arabia. Philip Hammond, the Foreign Secretary (who recently, it was revealed received the gift of a watch worth £2000 from a Saudi Shiehk) stated recently that the UK was pursuing a policy of:
quiet and continued engagement behind the scenes with countries such as Saudi Arabia
The UK is not alone in aligning with the tyrants and ignoring human rights concerns. European arms exports report shows that EU member states licensed extensive (€3,850,419,831) contracts for weapons sales to the regime. Reprieve, has previously described Britain’s criticism of Saudi Arabia’s human rights record as ‘muted‘. To quote prominent human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell:
David Cameron’s silence over Saudi Arabia’s mass executions is shameful. It is collusion with barbarism, which does huge damage to Britain’s international reputation. How can the UK be taken seriously if we condemn human rights abuses by Iran and Russia but not by Saudi Arabia?
Former Liberal Democrat leader Lord (Menzies) Campbell said that he believed the Government’s current approach to Saudi Arabia was correct. The nature of the relationship between Britain and Saudi Arabia is more down to matters of ‘realpolitik’ & necessity.
….in the urgent objective of achieving stability in the Middle East both Saudi Arabia and Iran will have vital roles to play. Alienating ourselves from either of these countries is not in our interests nor helpful to the long-term aim of political settlement in the region…
In the interview (see above) with Jon Snow for Channel 4 News, David Cameron was pressed on Britain’s connections, the PM stated:
We have a relationship with Saudi Arabia and if you want to know why I’ll tell you why. It’s because we receive from them important intelligence and security information that keeps us safe. The reason… is our own national security…
This canard is regularly trotted out to justify a host of dubious British arms deals, energy and prison contracts, lucrative inward investment and property schemes – and the ignoring of Saudi Arabia’s appalling human rights record. Questions should be asked, regularly. Not only is something very rotten in Riyadh, but also in Westminster. It is time to shine a light onto the shady corners of our relationship with Saudi Arabia.
By Frederick Antonio Gallucci | International Law LLM | @gibblegbble