The mysterious case of a Saudi Arabian journalist who went missing earlier this month after entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul has so far provoked a mild response from UK authorities – despite Turkish officials saying they have evidence he was murdered by his own government.
Jamal Khashoggi, a vocal critic of the Gulf state’s rulers who fled the country last year, has not been seen or heard from since he entered the building on 2 October – and there is no evidence that he ever left.
Turkish officials have concluded he was killed inside the consulate on orders from the highest levels of the Saudi leadership, according to The New York Times.
Foreign Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, cautiously commented on the incident on Tuesday, saying he would “treat the incident seriously” but stressing the “friendships [that] depend on shared values” between the UK and Saudi Arabia.
In a statement on Sunday Hunt went no further, only saying the incident is being treated with the “the utmost seriousness” and calling for a “credible investigation”.
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Compare this to the response Boris Johnson gave as Foreign Secretary when it was believed journalist Arkady Babchenko had been shot dead by Russia (he later turned up alive in a bizarre police sting).
Saudi Arabia has a dismal record on human rights – the latest report from Human Rights Watch paints a picture of a country with very few of the “shared values” that Hunt refers to in his tweet.
The accusations include the “arbitrary arrest of peaceful dissidents”, “systematic discrimination against women and religious minorities”, 146 executions including “59 for non-violent drug crimes” and a “Saudi-led coalition continued an airstrike campaign against Houthi forces in Yemen that included the use of banned cluster munitions and apparently unlawful strikes that killed civilians”.
Foreign Office statements and Foreign Secretary tweets on Saudi Arabia are generally positive but on the rare occasion they are critical are typically muted, expressing only “concern” over matters such as executions of female human rights activists and a man sentenced to paralysis.
And in March Theresa May came under attack for “rolling out the red carpet” for Saudi Arabia after it emerged that its Crown Prince would be honoured with engagements with the Royal Family and ministers on his trip to the UK.
The UK Government’s unwillingness to criticise the Saudis was starkly illustrated last year when it was reported May was sitting on a report into Saudi funding of extremists in the UK.
The BBC’s Frank Gardner said the report was “largely finished and sitting on Theresa May’s desk”, but might not see the light of day because of “embarrassing” content.
So why is the UK so unwilling to criticise Saudi Arabia?
The UK has a close relationship with Saudi Arabia primarily involving trade, intelligence sharing and, to a lesser extent, oil.
Since the conflict in Yemen began in 2015 the UK has licensed at least £4.7billion of arms exports to Saudi Arabia which is leading a coalition of forces that has launched 18,000 airstrikes ostensibly at Houthi rebels.
According to the United Nations there have been 17,062 civilian casualties.
The UK also provides military assistance to coalition forces. In 2016, then-Foreign Secretary, Philip Hammond, said: “We are working... to ensure that target sets are correctly identified and processes correctly followed and that only legitimate military targets are struck.”
How successful this is open to debate as figures from the Yemen Data Project show schools, market places and mosques have all regularly been hit.
May replied that the UK’s intelligence links with the Saudis had saved potentially hundreds of lives from terror attacks at home, and insisted she had raised “concerns” about the humanitarian situation in Yemen.
While staying largely silent on Saudi Arabia’s human rights record and intervention in Yemen, the UK Government instead chooses to highlight the success of the country’s Vision 2030 project, such as giving women the right to drive.
Writing in March in a blog for HuffPost UK, Amnesty International Director, Kate Allen, said: “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.”
A recent spat between Canada and Saudi Arabia gives an indication of how the Gulf country reacts to criticism.
This tweet urging the release of human rights activists held in the country prompted a massive diplomatic retaliation from Saudi Arabia including withdrawing 15,000 Riyadh-funded Saudi students and 1,000 medical residents and fellows from Canadian universities and teaching hospitals and suspending Saudi Arabian Airlines’ flights to Toronto.
They also halted purchases of barley and wheat from Canadian suppliers and instructed the Saudi central bank and state pension funds to sell off Canadian assets.
The UK was silent on the matter.