The vast majority of those protesting Mohammed bin Salman’s visit to the UK this week are doing so for sincerely held and understandable reasons.
Many of us who welcome the UK extending the hand of partnership to the Crown Prince are similarly troubled about human rights in Saudi Arabia. We share a sense of horror at the dreadful toll of casualties in Yemen. Yet we reach a starkly different conclusion to those holding placards about how to treat the royal visit and the underlying relationship between our countries which it is designed to deepen.
The reasons to support the visit despite the difficulties? Well, firstly on Yemen. There were indeed deplorable mistakes made by Saudi armed forces at the start of the conflict in their prosecution of the international community’s shared goal of supporting the deposed Yemeni government. The bombing of the funeral in Sanaa was shocking and the decision to restrict access to Yemeni ports caused terrible humanitarian suffering whether or not measures were justified to stop missiles being smuggled into the country.
Yet international pressure, not least from the United Kingdom, has changed the situation on the ground considerably. The blocked ports are finally open for aid to be distributed, and the Saudi air force has implemented UK advice to tighten its targeting procedures. Frustratingly slowly, but significantly, it is beginning to accept the culture of official investigation of military incidents and open acknowledgement of mistakes where they occur. There are still too many civilians dying from misdirected bombs or the hideous spectre of diseases like cholera. It would be inexcusable to turn a blind eye to that ongoing suffering. Just as damaging though, are those who unwittingly act as propagandists for the extremists by refusing to accept or acknowledge where progress has occurred. Or worse, those who posit the Saudis as the main aggressors in the region rather than their Houthi opponents who overthrew a legitimate government, have zero respect for human rights and whose violence would destabilise the whole region if it were allowed to gain a permanent foothold.
Then, on human rights within the kingdom itself. Saudi’s use of the death penalty, its secret courts, the lack of freedom of expression and lack of rights for women or tolerance for homosexuality remain deeply troubling. People are right to campaign for change, as they should in every nation with similar human rights issues.
I am clear that close engagement is the most effective way to support that change. Those who insist we should refuse to treat the Saudis as allies until each and every one of their human rights issues is comprehensively addressed do not only endanger a decades-long security partnership that helps foil extremists who would attack British citizens in our cities. Equally seriously, slamming the door on Prince bin Salman now would signal we are indifferent to his unprecedentedly ambitious vision to modernise a country whose culture impacts across the Muslim world. This is not solely allowing women to drive or attend football matches; the new government insists it is determined to dismantle the whole apparatus of state oppression towards Saudi women and create a more equal and tolerant society whose example would reverberate across the Middle East.
Should we believe it when we see it? Yes of course. Well-intentioned modernisation drives have been derailed in the kingdom before and there will be many ultra-conservatives who feel deeply threatened by the prince’s ambitions on several fronts. Even if he faced no opposition whatsoever and made every change he wants, it is hard to envisage a Saudi citizen in Riyadh ever being able to enjoy the level of freedom with which we are blessed in Britain.
But it is because Britain, and more specifically the British left, believes in liberty and tolerance that we should welcome this move to increase those values in a country that has long been a by-word for oppression. And because we welcome his stated direction of travel, we should welcome the man himself. I hope Mohammed bin Salman enjoys his trip.
John Woodcock is the Labour MP for Barrow and Furness, and chair of Labour’s backbench foreign affairs committee