28/10/2015 11:50 GMT | Updated 27/10/2016 06:12 BST

If Jeremy Corbyn is Offending the Saudi Regime Then he's Doing Something Right


Copyright - Chris Beckett

Despite its long history of authoritarianism and brutality, the Saudi regime is surprisingly thin skinned. That was the lesson this week when Mohammed bin Nawaf bin Abdulaziz, the Saudi Ambassador to the UK, took to the comment pages of the Daily Telegraph to denounce Jeremy Corbyn and what he sees as an "alarming change" in the way his government is discussed in the UK.

"The Kingdom has always had to deal with a lack of understanding and misconceptions" he wrote in a petulant and self-pitying piece that talked of "fairness" and "cultural exchanges" but didn't once mention human rights.

He went on to denounce the UK's decision to cancel the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) contract to work with Saudi prisons; citing Corbyn's intervention in particular as a breach of mutual respect. "We want this relationship to continue but we will not be lectured to by anyone" he continued, in a tone that was more akin to a jilted lover than a diplomat.

So what did Corbyn actually do to earn the ambassador's ire? Well, in his first conference speech as Labour leader he called on the Prime Minister to intervene and try to stop the execution of Ali Mohammed al-Nimr, who was sentenced to death for taking part in protests. Shortly afterwards he joined others from across the House in calling for the MoJ to stop working with a Saudi justice system that punishes almost all dissent and has doubled beheadings in the last 12 months.

The contract may have been cancelled, but the UK's connection with Saudi Arabia extends way beyond prison management. The historically close relationship has been underpinned by mutually back-slapping state visits and a politically intimate military relationship that has seen Saudi Arabia becoming one of the UKs closest allies in the Middle East, and by far the biggest buyer of British weapons.

Corbyn's stance is certainly a change of tone from other party leaders, but the Saudi connection is one that can be characterised as institutional rather than party political. The Coalition government licensed over £4 billion worth of arms to the Kingdom, but it was following the same policy as governments of all colours dating back to the 1970's.

The last time the Saudis publicly rebuked the UK was in 2006, when the Serious Fraud office began looking into corruption relating to arms sales to the regime. The investigation threatened to unearth a litany of embarrassing details, but, after a concerted lobbying effort, including interventions by Tony Blair and the Attorney General, it was dropped.

One of the reasons for the support has been the high level of integration between the UK and Saudi military programmes. Around 240 UK Ministry of Defence civil servants and military personnel work to support the contracts through the Ministry of Defence Saudi Armed Forces Programme (MODSAP) and the Saudi Arabia National Guard Communications Project (SANGCOM).

The human cost of Saudi aggression extends beyond its own borders, with UK-sold arms having been used by Saudi forces in Bahrain. Right now UK fighter jets are dropping UK bombs in the unfolding humanitarian catastrophe that is being unleashed on the people of Yemen. UK cooperation has been key to the campaign, with bombs earmarked for the RAF having been transferred to Saudi forces.

Within 24 hours of the Ambassador's article, the Saudi-led coalition had bombed a hospital supported by MSF (Doctors Without Borders), leaving up to 200,000 people in the region without access to medical care. The co-ordinates of the hospital, which is reported to have had a giant MSF logo on the roof, had already been provided to them.

To this backdrop the cancellation of the prison contract is definitely a welcome move, and the ambassador's words are confirmation that the Saudis are taking it seriously. But it must only be the start. There is a glaring hypocrisy at the heart of UK foreign policy and it is embodied by the approach that successive governments have taken towards Saudi Arabia and the wider region.

Campaigners all across the Gulf are suffering at the hands of oppressive Monarchs, some of which enjoy a huge Western support. Arms sales and fawning testimonies from government ministers haven't just provided military support for these dictatorships; they have also sent a statement of political support for the repression and abuse that they have presided over.

Corbyn should take the Ambassador's comments as a badge of honour and a sign that he's doing the right thing. However, it will take the words and actions of people from across all parties and wider society if the UK is to finally change its policy and end its support for the oppressive and authoritarian House of Saud.

Andrew Smith is a spokesperson for Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT). You can follow CAAT at @CAATuk.