Mohammad bin Salman is in the UK this week, making his first foreign trip as Saudi Arabia’s much-talked-about heir apparent.
He has a busy first day to kick things off: a meeting with Theresa May in Downing Street in the afternoon, followed by dinner with the Queen at Windsor Castle in the evening. For a wealthy prince said to have recently bought the world’s most expensive home (Chateau Louis XIV in Louveciennes, near Versailles in France, asking price $300million) Windsor Castle may be more to his taste.
Wealth isn’t an irrelevance here. In a lengthy newspaper article glowing with praise for the Crown Prince last week, Boris Johnson sought to emphasise the value to our economy of UK exports to oil-rich Saudi Arabia. In the post-Brexit future, Mr Johnson seemed to be suggesting, these lucrative sales will be good for the British economy.
Sales of what, though? Mr Johnson doesn’t specify, but we can be fairly sure that a large chunk - if not the lion’s share - of recent exports to Riyadh have been of UK-manufactured military equipment and the back-up staff and expertise that goes with them. In the past three years alone, the UK has arranged arms deals to Saudi Arabia worth at least £4.6billion. Namely: two dozen Typhoon fighter planes (part of a much bigger deal), nearly £2billion worth of Paveway and Brimstone missiles and other munitions, components for military helicopters and armoured vehicles, sniper rifles and numerous other items of military hardware and kit. The exact number of consignments is difficult to gauge because the UK grants many so-called “open licences” for arms exports to Saudi Arabia.
Sales are sales, so why does this matter? It matters because, as ministers never tire of telling us, the UK is supposed to operate an arms export controls system which will always block arms sales that could contribute to human rights abuses. If there’s a clearly-identifiable risk that the sale of UK-manufactured arms could lead to human rights violations, then those weapons don’t get shipped.
And here the risk is plain to see. The period being hailed a success for Anglo-Saudi exports overlaps with the terrifying war ravaging Yemen, Saudi Arabia’s southern neighbour.
For the past three years, the Saudi-led military coalition has carried out wave after wave of punishing airstrikes in its pursuit of Iranian-backed Houthi separatists. In addition to killing Houthi fighters, the coalition has repeatedly obliterated homes, hospitals, funeral halls, schools and factories in reckless and indiscriminate attacks. Thousands of Yemeni civilians have been killed or injured. The coalition has even used British cluster bombs, part of a large consignment sold to Riyadh decades ago (Saudi Arabia’s role as a major purchaser of UK arms has a long history, including the highly controversial Al Yamamah deal).
According to reports, Mohammad bin Salman has himself spearheaded Saudi Arabia’s operations in Yemen. Brushing aside international concerns over the frighteningly-high civilian death toll, the Saudi authorities have also mounted a crippling blockade on Yemeni ports that’s contributed to a devastating famine and a deep humanitarian crisis.
Looking at Yemen, then, there’s nothing remotely “reformist” about Prince Mohammad, merely a de facto ruler using military might with lethal recklessness.
When Boris Johnson says Saudi Arabia “has introduced exactly the kind of reforms that we have always advocated”, he’s apparently ignoring Yemen and focusing on Saudi Arabia’s so-called “Vision 2030” programme to liberalise its economy. The Foreign Secretary says he takes heart from last year’s announcement that Saudi woman will finally be allowed to drive and that gender segregation is to be relaxed.
Even here Mr Johnson is being highly selective. We get no mention of the recently stepped-up jailing of peaceful opposition figures (joining earlier prisoners of conscience like the blogger Raif Badawi who still languishes behind bars years after an international outcry). No mention either of the alarming prevalence of torture in detention. No mention of routinely unfair trials or the grisly public executions that are all too often the end-result of these travesties of justice. And, though they may soon be permitted to climb into the driver’s seat of a car without facing arrest, no mention of the fact that Saudi women are still treated as second-class citizens - required to have permission from a male guardian (father, husband, brother or son) to get a job, to enrol in higher education, to travel or to marry.
Deliberate omission and lavish unearned praise is no way to run a foreign policy.
In truth, it’s a matter of deep shame that Britain has sold billions of pounds of arms to Saudi Arabia despite a clear and present risk that this would add to the carnage in Yemen. And brave human rights and democracy activists in places like Riyadh and Jeddah have every reason to feel betrayed by the UK as it overlooks their plight in pursuit of trade deals.
This is a betrayal not just of Saudi Arabia’s democracy activists; it’s a betrayal of the UK’s own avowed human rights principles. It’s time the UK started showing some backbone in its relationship with Saudi Arabia.