Britain finally mustered an official response on Sunday to the execution of 47 prisoners by Saudi Arabia, including that of a prominent Shiite cleric, which led to an attack on an embassy in Tehran and a severing of diplomatic relations between Iran and the Saudi regime.
Commenting on the killings that are threatening the stability of the entire Middle East, Britain expressed its “disappointment.”
On Sunday, the Saudi foreign minister revealed that his country was ending diplomatic ties with Iran after its embassy was attacked, an incident sparked by Saturday's execution of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, a critic of the Saudi authorities. Staff from the Iranian mission were given 48 hours to leave Riyadh, while their Saudi counterparts were recalled home from Tehran.
The death of Nimr al-Nimr led to an international outcry over the weekend; Britain responded with a meekly worded statement calling for calm.
Foreign Office minister Tobias Ellwood said: "I am deeply disturbed by the escalation in tensions in the last 24 hours in the Middle East. The UK is firmly opposed to the death penalty. We have stressed this to the Saudi authorities and also expressed our disappointment at the mass executions."
The minister added that he didn’t expect the same fate to befall the cleric’s nephew, Ali al-Nimr, who was 17 at the time of the Arab Spring uprisings that led to his arrest. Al-Nimr faces crucifixion for his role in the 2012 protests.
"We have discussed with the authorities in Riyadh, and expect that Ali Al-Nimr and others who were convicted as juveniles will not be executed," Ellwood said. "The UK will continue to raise these cases with the Saudi authorities. We are deeply concerned to hear of the attack yesterday on the Saudi embassy in Tehran. It is essential that diplomatic missions are properly protected and respected. There are those who will wish to exploit the situation and raise sectarian tensions higher. This would be against the wishes of the vast majority of those in the region. I urge all parties in the region to show restraint and responsibility."
Saturday’s executions have placed the UK's links with the Arab kingdom under increasing scrutiny, with Shadow foreign secretary Hilary Benn and Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron demanding prime minister David Cameron speak out against the Saudi regime's actions.
However on Sunday David Gauke defended Britain's close ties with Riyadh, saying, "we can tell them what we think". Speaking on Sky News, the Treasury minister said: "Clearly it is a very worrying development and we oppose capital punishment in this way, we think that that is wrong. When it comes to protecting British people, the Prime Minister has made it clear that intelligence from Saudi Arabia has helped save lives and protect people in the UK."
"We have a relationship with Saudi Arabia where we are able to speak candidly to them, where these issues are raised on a regular basis by the Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister and our representatives in Riyadh," he added. "We are able to have that relationship where we can tell them what we think and clearly it is a worrying development, what we have heard from Saudi Arabia in the last few days."
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