Saudi Arabia’s public prosecutor is currently pushing for the execution of human rights campaigner Israa Al-Ghomgham. As Israa waits to learn her fate, the rest of the world looks on in horror at the prospect that the first female human rights activist in the Kingdom could be about to lose her life over spurious charges including attempts to inflame public opinion.
Everyone, that is, apart from the British government. On Wednesday Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt defended the UK’s relationship with Saudi – the former health secretary told the BBC that being close to its ally Saudi stops bombs going off on the streets of Britain.
The UK has calculated that it has too much to lose if it speaks out against the 48 people the House of Saud executed in the first four months of this year or the fact that Saudi dissident Raif Badawi has been sentenced to 1,000 lashes. Saudi is the UK’s largest trading partner in the Middle East with joint ventures between the two countries valued at £11.5 billion ($14.7 billion). Saudi is the UK’s biggest arms customer.
Just look at what happened to Canada when it tried to speak out for two jailed activists. Riyadh cut ties with Toronto and accused the government of interfering in the internal affairs of the country. The Canadian ambassador was expelled, Saudi students in Canada had their scholarships revoked and trade and investment between the two countries was suspended.
If this was their reaction to calls to release two political prisoners, what would they say if an ally criticised bigger issues, like, for example, the four-year war the Saudi-led coalition has waged on Yemen that created what the UN called one of the worst humanitarian disasters in modern times.
As a result of this conflict people live on one meal a day; the price of food and medicine is more than 500 times more expensive than since the start of the conflict, whilst 8.4 million are on the verge of famine. Not only does Saudi buy weapons from the UK, but Britain is also responsible for the safe storage and issue of weapons to Saudi warplanes and it supplies technical assistance and military advisers. This makes the UK fully complicit in the slaughter in Yemen.
Over the weekend young school boys dug rectangle graves for their 40 friends who were killed when a Saudi-led coalition air strike hit a school bus that had stopped to pick up snacks in a local market. The bomb that killed the children was an American Lockheed Martin bomb – the US also sells huge amounts of arms to Saudi Arabia.
When pressed on the issue Hunt would not promise to talk to Washington to review its approach to the war in Yemen or suggest it return to Obama’s ban on weapons sales. “We want to make sure that our allies are conducting their activities in a way that we can defend to our own publics, but also respecting that they are our allies,” he told diplomatic correspondent James Robbins.
Whilst the images of the young school children being pulled off the bus bloodied and confused have shocked the nation out of their media silence on Yemen and shined an urgent spotlight on US and UK arms deals, it has not been enough to stir the conscience of the British government. I mean, who gives a damn about little kids ripped to pieces on a school bus as long as we are safe here in fortress Britain.
Earlier this week Hunt told the United States Institute for Peace: “We need to rebuild the strongest possible alliances between countries that share the same values.” An admission that rather than supporting the so-called British values of democracy, the rule of law and tolerance, the UK supports the Saudi Arabian values of authoritarian oppression.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.