Association for Defending Victims of Terrorism – The British hypocrisy in its ties with Saudi Arabia finally unravelled with the invitation to crown prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) to the United Kingdom (UK) last week. MBS will visit Britain for the first time, probably in October/November, since the gruesome murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents in Istanbul in October 2018.
The most reprehensible and hypocritical aspect of UK-Saudi relations is Britain turning a blind eye to the flagrant violation of human rights in the Kingdom and the complicity in Riyadh’s war crimes in Yemen.
Lengthy jail terms for dissidents trying to express their freedom of thought and expression, harassment of human rights defenders and death penalties after unfair trials are common in Saudi Arabia. But London remains mum and maintains strong military and economic ties with Riyadh despite theabysmal human rights record.
Around two years after the UK sanctioned 19 Saudis for Khashoggi’s murder, then-prime minister Boris Johnson landed in the Kingdom in March 2022.
One week before Johnson’s visit, Saudi Arabia had executed 81 men, including citizens and foreign nationals, in the biggest mass execution in recent decades.
Johnson brazenly lied that “things are changing in Saudi Arabia” and he had raised the issue of human rights when asked about the executions by the BBC. In November 2022, 20 people were executed for drug-related crimes, according to Amnesty International.
Clearly, Johnson’s mission was oil. Global crude oil prices had spiked, Vladimir Putin had invaded Ukraine a month ago and the West was looking to reduce its dependence on Russian oil and gas.
The massive disparity in British aid to Yemen and Ukraine highlights its hypocrisy. According to UK Parliament documents, Britain has provided more than £1 billion in aid to Yemen since 2015 with the assistance falling from a peak of £260 million in 2019 to £114 million in 2021. The aid was further reduced to £88 in 2022-23 and 2023-24.
A November 2021 UNDP report had projected Yemen’s death toll will reach 377,000 by 2021-end with 70 per cent of casualties among children under five.
According to the UN, 4.5 million people (one in seven) have been displaced while 24.1 million people (80 per cent of the population) need humanitarian aid and protection.
According to UNICEF, more than 11,000 children have been killed or wounded as a direct result of the fighting since 2015. More than 23.4 million people, including 12.9 million children, need humanitarian assistance and protection, and 4,300,00 have been internally displaced.
On the other hand, the UK is the second largest military donor to Ukraine at £4.6 billion since the war started—£2.3 billion each in 2022 and 2023.
The UK has also provided £347 million in humanitarian assistance to Ukraine since the invasion.
There are several reasons for the UK courting Saudi Arabia despite the controversies over the Kingdom’s human rights record and Yemen war crimes.
London temporarily banned arms sales in June 2019 over Riyadh’s human rights violation during the Yemen invasion only to resume it in July 2020.
The published value of UK arms licensed for export to the Saudi-led coalition since the Yemen war is £9.7 billion (including £8.2 billion to Saudi Arabia alone).
Trade and oil: In 26 years (1995 to 2021), Saudi exports to the UK increased from $908 million to $2.18 billion.
UK Department of Business and Trade data show exports plus imports between the two nations increased by 68.5 per cent from the four quarters to the end of Q4 2021 to £17.3 billion in the four quarters to the end of Q4 2022—total UK exports amounted to £12.2 billion, an increase of 51.7 per cent, and imports were worth £5.1 billion, or 129.1 per cent rise.
According to the latest figures, British exports of goods to Saudi Arabia jumped by 32.8 per cent in the 12 months to April 2023 compared to the same period in 2022. UK imports of Saudi goods increased by 123 per cent.
The UK’s dependence of oil from authoritarian regimes has galloped since the Ukraine war with Saudi Arabia accounting for fossil fuel imports worth £3.4 billion out of the total value of £19.3 billion in 2022.
FTA with GCC: The UK also wants Saudi Arabia’s support in negotiating a free trade agreement (FTA) with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), home to 54 million people with a collective economy of $16 trillion.
UK exported goods worth £23.1 billion to the GCC in 2020. An FTA could boost annual wages of workers by almost £0.6 billion-£1.1 billion, increase UK’s GDP by around £1.6 billion to £3.1 billion and boost trade by around £8.6 billion to £15.8 billion in 2035.