Andrew Smith: The Arab Spring should have been the start of a re-evaluation of how the UK does business in the region

Comment: The Foreign Office prefers Saudi arms deals to human rights

Comment: The Foreign Office prefers Saudi arms deals to human rights

By Andrew Smith

You would be hard pushed to find a country where human rights mean less than in Saudi Arabia. The country is run by a dictatorial monarch that has even been accused of keeping his four daughters under house arrest. What has happened to the princesses is shocking, but it also raises the obvious question: if this is how they treat royalty, how do they treat their opponents?

To protest against the regime is to risk your liberty, and even your life. The risk has become even greater, with the government having recently passed a new 'terrorism' law that treats atheists and political dissidents as enemies of the state. This is far from an isolated event; government repression is widespread and systematic all across the 'kingdom'. This is why the most recent Economist Democracy Index said that it is the fifth most authoritarian government in the world.

Despite the widespread human rights abuses, the regime is not short of international support. In the last few weeks alone it has hosted state visits by Barack Obama and Prince Charles. The latter was visiting to finalise an arms deal for BAE Systems and even took part in a traditional Saudi sword dance. The day after Prince Charles' recent visit, seven Saudi citizens were jailed for 20 years for protesting against the regime.

The relationship between the UK and Saudi Arabia is a close one that is based on extensive arms trading and oil deals. The deals are complemented by a strong level of political support and a deafening silence and inaction on human rights. Their influence goes beyond foreign policy and has even begun to penetrate domestic decisions. Seemingly at the regime's behest, prime minister David Cameron, has called for an investigation into the Muslim Brotherhood to be spearheaded by Sir John Jenkins, the British ambassador to Saudi Arabia.

The Saudi regime understands the importance of muting criticism. So the international legitimacy that they get from UK support, and state visits from the heir to the throne, is just as powerful as any of the weapons they are buying. Even when criticisms are made they are often ignored or met with indifference. For example, in the most recent Human Rights and Democracy' report from the UK Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO) Saudi Arabia is listed as a country of concern. The report highlighted a number of the human rights abuses taking place, but provided no explanation for why the UK had licensed £1.9 billion in military exports during the two years that preceded it. Surely this is completely incompatible with the UK's commitment to human rights?

In 2013 the House of Commons' foreign affairs committee (FAC) published the results of an inquiry into the UK's relations with Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. Unfortunately the report made it clear that arms company and establishment interests had made their way into the heart of the inquiry. 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 disinterested or questioning manner. Similarly, the committee hosted informal meetings with representatives from BAE Systems, the UK's largest arms company and major arms supplier to Saudi Arabia.

The report was a whitewash, concluding: "The government has placed a renewed emphasis on its long-term relations with both Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, in part by relying on our rich heritage of historic links with these traditional allies.” What it did was provide the government with cover as it continues the policy of talking about human rights abroad at the same time as it turns a blind eye to the actions of despicable regimes in a desire to drum up sales for BAE Systems.

Sadly this is nothing new. Saudi Arabia has been a major buyer of UK weapons since the 1960s. The deals have enjoyed the backing of successive UK governments and benefited from a strong institutional support, which has facilitated a great deal of three-way co-operation between the UK government, Saudi Arabia and BAE. Top-level support has always been made available when promoting its arms deals with Saudi Arabia. For example, in November 2012 Cameron visited the regime in a bid to cement the Eurofighter Typhoon deal.

Of course the UK is not alone in aligning with the tyrants and ignoring human rights concerns. The most recent European arms exports report, which covers licences for 2012, shows that year alone EU member states licensed 3.5 billion euros worth of weapons to the regime. The nature of these relationships has suppressed any opposition from Europe and ensured that the prevailing environment is one that is characterised by violence, intimidation and repression. As the situation continues to escalate we can be under no doubt that decisions being made in the name of arms trade profits are having serious consequences for the victims of the terrible regime.

What is implicit in the arms sales is the backing for the current Saudi regime and a message to those in Saudi Arabia and the wider region that their aspirations for human rights and democracy are of less importance than arms trade profits. The FAC report into relations with Bahrain and Saudi Arabia noted: "Both the government and the opposition in Bahrain view UK defence sales as a signal of British support for the government." This could be applied equally to Saudi Arabia.

The Arab Spring should have been the start of a re-evaluation of how the UK does business in the region. The UK must put human rights at the heart of its policy towards Saudi Arabia, not the interests of the arms companies.

Andrew Smith is a spokesperson for Campaign Against Arms Trade

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