The Blog

King Abdullah and the UK: When Arms Sales Trump Human Rights

Many of the gushing tributes to King Abdullah have painted him as a man of peace and a force for good. In reality he was the figurehead of one of the most violent and oppressive governments in the world.

Many of the gushing tributes to King Abdullah have painted him as a man of peace and a force for good. In reality he was the figurehead of one of the most violent and oppressive governments in the world.

One thing that remained all too consistent throughout King Abdullah's reign was the brutal and repressive manner in which his family ran its Kingdom. Another was the uncritical support that it enjoyed from countries like UK.

To question the Saudi authorities has always been to risk long term imprisonment or even your life. The terrible punishment of blogger Raif Badawi is only the latest example of the oppression and barbarism that the Monarchy exercises against its people.

Last March saw the introduction of a new 'terrorism' law that treats all atheists and political dissidents as enemies of the state. Torture is widespread and LGBT citizens are routinely punished by some of the most restrictive and homophobic laws in the world.

Public executions are still commonplace, there have been ten beheadings in 2015 alone. All of this has contributed to why the Economist Democracy Index listed it as the fifth most oppressive government in the world.

Regardless of its appalling human rights record, the family has had no shortage of international supporters and admirers. In the last few years it has enjoyed flattering and ego-boosting meetings with leaders like Angela Merkel, Barack Obama, David Cameron and a sword-dancing Prince Charles, all of whom flew out to see them.

These high profile visits have only served to strengthen the family's archaic and authoritarian rule,allowing them to continue their repression unabated. In fact, the day after Prince Charles' recent visit, seven Saudi citizens were jailed for 20 years for 'offences' that included protesting.

These often sycophantic political relationships have been backed up by strong commercial ones. A particular area of focus has been the arms trade.

Saudi Arabia spends billions of pounds on weapons every year, and has been the largest buyer of UK-made arms over a period of decades. Major arms sales to the kingdom have come with the explicit support of successive UK governments and benefited from a high level of institutional support; with the Saudis paying for around 240 Ministry of Defence civil servants and military personnel to support the contracts.

The scale of these arms sales has led to close three-way co-operation between the UK government, the Saudi state and companies like BAE Systems. This was evident in the 1980s when Margaret Thatcher presided over the corruption-riddled Al Yamamah Tornado deal, and when Tony Blair oversaw the signing of a provisional multi-billion pound agreement for BAE Eurofighter jets in 2005.

In 2006 Blair's Eurofighter deal came under threat due to an ongoing Serious Fraud Office investigation into allegations that BAE had paid bribes to secure arms sales to the Saudis. However, just as the Saudis began threatening to pull out and move the order to France Blair intervened and had the investigation dropped.

The arms sales have continued under the Coalition government, which has licensed over £3.8 billion worth of weapons to the Saudis since taking office in 2010.

With the King's death there is a chance for governments like the UK to re-evaluate their relationships with the Kingdom. Abdullah's successor, Prince Salman, is unlikely to bring in any major political change, or to willingly cede any of his power, but much of his regime's global influence and legitimacy comes from the close relationships it enjoys with world leaders.

Western arms sales and fawning visits from government ministers haven't just provided military support for the dictatorship; they have also sent a statement of political support for the repression it has presided over. On top of that, they have given a message to Saudi citizens and the wider region that their rights to human rights and democracy are a lower priority than steady oil supplies and arms company profits. Germany has just announced that it will cease selling arms to the Saudis. It is time for the UK to do the same.

Andrew Smith is a spokesperson for Campaign Against Arms Trade