Theresa May's disingenuous Saudi stance

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The British Prime Minister is many things. Depending on which side of the political spectrum you're on, she's either a trailblazing female politician set on reclaiming Britain's independent role in Europe, or just another callous, career orientated Conservative ill-suited to the challenges at hand.

Theresa MayOne quality she does appear to possess, however, is a degree of honesty, particularly when it comes to Britain's controversial take on human rights and foreign trade.

Or does she? Immediately prior to a diplomatic visit to the Middle East, May caused stirs in the media by stressing the importance of Britain's relationship with Saudi Arabia, itself a state commonly viewed as an incessant violator of internationally recognised human rights.

To add further controversy, her own Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, suddenly broke ranks by openly questioning Saudi Arabia's role in the region, accusing it (and Iran) of engaging in proxy wars to the obvious detriment of the population.

May's perspective, however, is that such apparent trivialities are of secondary importance in the face of close economic ties, with the UK having a responsibility to remain open and inclusive of all those looking to do serious business. Much of May's argument seems to rely on the notion that one is better off in a state of dialogue than without.

Saudi Arabia, having been a staunch ally of the UK for some considerable time, is all the same notorious for its attitude towards many of the civil and political freedoms that British citizens take for granted. This apparent contradiction, so goes May's logic, actually has a sensibility of its own, where the British, by tried and tested methods of diplomacy, can gradually convince their ally of the merits of reform.

Close economic and political ties thus have the welcome effect of prompting a degree of cultural osmosis that will, at some presumed date in the future, lead to a paradigm shift in Saudi society and a greater respect for human rights overall.

The problem with this argument is that there simply doesn't appear to be any instances of such transformations taking root. The British relationship with Saudi Arabia goes back decades, even before the formal emergence of the country as a distinct political and territorial entity.

 

"There are absolutely no signs of Britain attempting to apply diplomatic pressure on an increasingly belligerent Riyadh, whether in terms of domestic policy or its increasingly dramatic foreign entanglements."

 

Ibn Saud, essentially the founder of the modern Saudi state, proved himself as a capable asset to UK interests from the First World War onward, being instrumental in curtailing the influence of an already moribund Ottoman Empire. The fact that Saud's campaigns were marked by extreme measures, severed heads on spikes included, doesn't appear to have been much of a concern for British policy makers, who were eager to supply their newfound ally with both tactical advice and a steady flow of weapons.

Saudi Arabia subsequently went on to distinguish itself in the late 1940s by being one of the few states to actually abstain on the vote to adopt the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Saud continued to solidify his rule as essentially an absolute monarch, proving himself a useful asset in curtailing undesirable developments in a region still regarded as of serious importance to British interests. Human rights or not, London never appears to have let such details get in the way of foreign policy, with regular trade alongside a steady flow of weapons sales ensuring a profitable and enduring relationship.

And it's here that May is exposed for being markedly disingenuous. Saudi Arabia has habitually used British weapons during its military intervention in Yemen, which has led to something of a humanitarian crisis as a plethora of civilian targets have been hit. The global arms trade, of which the UK is a serious player, is still a major component of international commerce, with the UK's exports having increased markedly in recent years to claim almost five per cent of the total market.

The fact these weapons appear to be being used in evident violations of international law doesn't seem to be particularly troubling to May. Additionally, there are absolutely no signs of Britain attempting to apply diplomatic pressure on an increasingly belligerent Riyadh, whether in terms of domestic policy or its increasingly dramatic foreign entanglements. Business, it seems, is to go on as usual.

Yet this isn't all that surprising given the current situation in UK politics. Ever since coming to power back in 2010, the ruling Conservative Party have clashed with human rights advocates, even going as far as to threaten to pull Britain away from the jurisdiction of the European Court of Human Rights. The recent campaign to prompt a 'Brexit' — itself a peculiar way of describing an economically disastrous fracture with the European Union — was itself capitalised on by elements of the Conservative right-wing, themselves often espousing a markedly anti-human rights platform.

Human rights have essentially become politicised as a means to assert British sovereignty against an allegedly hegemonic Europe, with hostility to the former being capitalised on as a means of countering the latter. It is thus perhaps not unexpected to see such sentiments taking shape in British foreign policy. The Prime Minister has, albeit unintentionally, made that quite clear.

 


Daniel Read

Daniel Read is a UK-based journalist specialising in human rights and international affairs. He originally studied journalism at Kingston University, London, prior to obtaining post-graduate degrees in both human rights and global politics. He blogs at uncommonsense.me and tweets at @DanielTRead.

Main image courtesy UK Home Office via Flickr

Topic tags: Daniel Read, Theresa May, Saudi Arabia


 

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Existing comments

It's tough being a politician and, as Daniel acknowledges, it is the side of the political spectrum that determines the view of the particular polly, in this case Theresa May. Since the close relationship with Saudi Arabia spans many decades, we cannot lay all the blame for double-dealing at her feet. Arm-twisting is never a good look in diplomatic circles, so steady perseverance is always the go. It's disheartening that Saudi Arabia has not adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and that there is an arms trade between UK and the Saudis. Is it better to have an imperfect relationship and still talk, or cut off ties and not talk? Certainly, a quandary.
Pam | 13 December 2016


Nothing seems to have changed in the Brit's sense of superiority and self -interest above all else. The continuing sale of weapons to regimes using them to annihilate others and promote terrorism against Christians and all other infidels defies understanding.
john frawley | 13 December 2016


Daniel rightly says Theresa May is " exposed for being markedly disingenuous. Saudi Arabia has habitually used British weapons during its military intervention in Yemen, which has led to something of a humanitarian crisis as a plethora of civilian targets have been hit. The global arms trade, of which the UK is a serious player, is still a major component of international commerce, with the UK's exports having increased markedly in recent years to claim almost five per cent of the total market" Other leading industrial nations of which the USA is leading also are supplying weapons that are ' destroying a plethora of civilian targets' and resulted in the plethora of lives being slaughtered. But the arms trade in keeping their factories turning and is producing super profits which measures the health of a society base on profit. Weapons are included in the Gross Domestic Profit (GDP) which measures the 'health' of a capitalist society. Long ago we were told that a time 'to beat the swords into plough shares'. That time is bearing down on us because along with destruction of life the wasteful production of weapons is not saving capitalism.
Reg Wilding | 13 December 2016


“Much of May's argument seems to rely on the notion that one is better off in a state of dialogue than without.” If George W. had stayed with his dad’s policy to stay in dialogue with Saddam Hussein than to bump him off, ISIS would be the name of an Egyptian goddess. “The problem with this argument is that there simply doesn't appear to be any instances of such transformations taking root.” If the mountain, deplorable and full of cultural and religious biases that need to be changed (to paraphrase one H. Clinton), won’t go to Theresa and her pretty Magna Carta ways …. Anyway, in these post-colonial days, those mountains, swimming in bucks, can afford to be pretty obdurate about where they will or won’t go.
Roy Chen Yee | 13 December 2016


Since the days of the Raj and Empire, the Brits have always put economic success in front of everything else including democracy and the independence of her colonies and the other European colonies in SE Asia, the Middle East and elsewhere after WW II . Indeed she send huge numbers of soldiers to their doom in countless forgotten wars from 1945 to the 1990's including the Iraq adventures! None of May's decisions are a surprise to me. She is simply following the Conservative script- pre WW II ! John Frawley, you are spot on!
Gavin | 13 December 2016


Well, with all its faults - and there are many - I still love England. I just hope and wish the British will stop following the U.S. into pointless wars.
Louw | 16 December 2016


Not one politician seems to understand the Middle East war is tribal. Oil rears its ugly head!
Elena Christe | 16 December 2016


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