Saudi Arabia has been in the news again this week for executing a prominent Shia cleric and democracy campaigner. There has been widespread condemnation for the execution, which was one of 47 carried out on the day. Britain however, has been distinctly muted in its response. Saudi Arabia is a close ally and we hold back from criticizing them. Britain campaigns against the death penalty internationally, but Saudi Arabia is strangely absent from the Foreign Office’s list of 30 priority countries where the issue should be raised.
When asked, politicians usually say that we need to remain friends because Saudi Arabia feeds us vital intelligence, and that this is a matter of national security. But there are also defense contracts to protect. In the last five years Saudi Arabia spent £5.5 billion on arms from British companies, our biggest customer. Arms worth £1.5 billion were licensed in the first half of 2015, despite evidence that British-made bombs were being used against civilians in the civil war in Yemen. This makes arms sales to the Saudis illegal under international law, but they continue to happen anyway.
In fact, the current government is so determined to look the other way on arms sales that the parliamentary committee that oversees arms licensing has vanished. The Commons committee on arms export controls disbanded when its chair retired in March last year and was never put back after the election. Without this key mechanism of accountability, nobody within government is checking up on who we’re selling arms to, so it’s hardly surprising the contracts keep coming in from Saudi Arabia.
Our priorities were stated very clearly by Sir Simon McDonald, the most senior official at the Foreign Office, during questioning by MPs recently. Human rights were “not one of our top priorities” he said, while “the prosperity agenda is further up the list.” This is not okay.
We have no business selling arms to the Saudis. Not with their human rights record, with the attacks against civilians in Yemen, or the murky private funding of terrorism. Most of us know it – a survey in October last year found that 62% of British adults oppose arms sales to Saudi Arabia. So let’s put a stop to it.
Amnesty International has a petition calling on Britain to stop arming Saudi Arabia, and so does the Campaign Against the Arms Trade.