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Britain's Deal With the Devil: How Money Trumped Values in Saudi Arabia

11/01/2016 11:09 | Updated 07 January 2017

"I am aware of media reports that claim Sheikh Nimr Baqir al-Nimr could be executed imminently," wrote Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond in June 2015.

"However, we understand that an appeal process is underway into Nimr al-Nimr's conviction and the Government does not plan to make representations to the Government of Saudi Arabia whilst the legal process is continuing." He was responding to a question posed by Hilary Benn, and completely undermined earlier calls by UN human rights bodies to halt the execution and Amnesty International's condemnation of his unfair trial.

When Saudi Arabia ordered Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr's execution alongside 46 others the day after New Years, it was not Philip Hammond nor David Cameron who made a statement on their ally's indefensible action. Instead the FCO had a junior minister release a statement (and when Cameron finally made a statement on the matter, days late, it was identical).

Eliciting the mildest concern possible, Middle East Minister Tobias Ellwood said the FCO is "firmly opposed" to the death penalty and "expressed our disappointment" at the mass executions, and urged restraint and responsibility not from Saudi Arabia but from "all parties in the region". It would be very generous to call this a criticism of the peaceful civil rights campaigner's execution.

This weak stance actually goes back six years, when the new coalition government took a political decision to tap into the key Gulf monarchy market and launched the 'Gulf Initiative' in 2010. To that effect, military sales to the region have boomed, and Gulf investment into London has flooded back in return.

In the first six months of 2015 alone, Britain sold £1.8 billion in arms to Saudi Arabia, equalling the amounts spent in the three preceding years. According to the Campaign Against Arms Trade, since David Cameron took office, Britain has sold a whopping £14 billion worth of arms to the six Gulf monarchies, with 90 per cent of those sales going to Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

The 'Arab Spring' of 2011 should have prompted complete revision of British policy. But instead the Gulf Initiative was entrenched, and in return for economic gains (see: £14 billion in arms sales), the UK provided political cover for their Gulf allies in the face of their greatest fear: local demand for democratic reform.

The current British-Gulf relationship has not yet moved from there. The unstated argument for propping up regimes which imprison and execute pro-democracy activists is that as long as ISIS is at large, we cannot risk Middle Eastern democracy. Not for a moment has the British establishment dared to publicly consider that government concessions to peaceful protestors could have avoided this descent to violence, or that doing so today could stem that violence. Britain could have helped give the nudge in the right direction, and still could, not least in Bahrain, where its influence was strongest. But the UK chose to reinforce the status quo.

In doing so, Britain has been complicit in creating this traumatic chaos. What will follow in the execution of Sheikh al-Nimr, the moderate civil rights campaigner and religious leader? We already saw violence against the Saudi embassy in Tehran and Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait and the Emirates breaking diplomatic ties with their neighbour. In Sheikh al-Nimr's hometown, unidentified gunmen opened fire on police, killing a civilian.

Further violence is almost inevitable and will play out in Syria and Yemen, where Saudi Arabia is violently vying for regional hegemony, aided in its wars by its supply of Made-in-Britain armaments. Violence will also be seen in Sheikh al-Nimr's hometown of Qatif and across the channel in Bahrain, where demonstrators protesting his execution have been arrested, and where Britain is building its first naval base in the region since 1971, with Bahrain paying for construction. All this is apparently ok because Saudi Arabia is helping us fight ISIS.

Six years on and the British government does not seem put off by the Gulf Initiative. At the minor cost of ditching Churchill's legacy of a Britain at the forefront of international human rights, the British arms industry has made a lot of money. So, what does it matter that loyal customer Saudi Arabia just executed a peaceful advocate of civil rights and democracy?

Sheikh al-Nimr's execution has irreversible implications on the war with ISIS, the Syria peace talks, on the rising price of oil, and on new protest movements and authoritarian responses to them. Will it be ok if 2016 is the year Britain sells Saudi more arms, which will be deployed in where it has created a humanitarian crisis? Will Britain continue supporting Saudi at the UN Human Rights Council, where it can attack its critics? Just what is gained by silence on the executions of innocent activists and the terrifying precedent that sets in the Gulf? And at what point will this bloodstained relationship stop being worth it?

The year opens with Saudi Arabia and Britain under scrutiny, and with good reason: the gains of supporting this brutal dictatorship are proving to be as short-lived as they are short-sighted.