'Mentioning human rights in meetings' will no longer cut it – we must hold the Saudi Regime to account
As the UK looks to leave the European Union and seeks to build trading partnerships elsewhere the question will be asked – what price is trade with Britain? Pursue trade deals with despotic regimes while ignoring their human rights abuses and we risk losing our good name in a fire sale, warns Alistair Carmichael MP.
You need a long-handled spoon to sup with the devil. An old saying that is as true today as it ever was. It is also one that ought to be printed and stuck on the desk of every minister and official in the Department for International Trade.
As we face the prospect of leaving the European Union – possibly without a deal – we naturally look for other markets. There will undoubtedly be opportunities in this but there will also be threats. The biggest threat comes in the damage we might do to our standing on the world stage as we cast around for new trading partners.
For decades Britain has been seen as a force for good in the world. Around the globe people look to us for leadership on democracy, human rights and tackling climate change.
That is not to say that we have always got everything right. Supporting George W Bush’s war in Iraq was probably the most egregious failure of our foreign policy in recent times but, on the whole, we are viewed favourably.
As we leave the European Union and seek to build trading partnerships elsewhere the question will be asked – what price is trade with Britain? Pursue trade deals with despotic regimes while ignoring their human rights abuses and we risk losing our good name in a fire sale.
There are few countries where the need to strike the right balance is more obvious than it is in Saudi Arabia. The Saudis are undeniably important partners on a range of issues from trade to intelligence. One percent of our GDP is based on exports to the Kingdom and Saudi intelligence has led to our intelligence services foiling a terrorist plot on UK soil. It is in our own interests to be pragmatic in our dealings with them.
The Saudi Regime has made some eye-catching reforms in recent times. Their “Vision 2030” has promoted plans to eradicate the religious police, to allow women to drive, and even to allow pop concerts to take place. Despite this, however, the overall direction of travel for the Kingdom has been backward.
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) was initially heralded as a great reformer but it didn’t last and now he is seen more as an autocrat than a reformer.
The war in Yemen, the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, the kidnapping of the Lebanese Prime Minister, and Saudi support of a renegade Libyan warlord accused of war crimes by the ICC, have all put the UK’s relationship with Saudi once more in the spotlight.
This is why today, as I lead a debate in the House of Commons on Human Rights in Saudi Arabia, it will focus on the imprisonment of female activists seeking the right to drive; political detainees imprisoned without charge, including Prince Turki bin Abdullah; the mass executions of 137 people on spurious charges including the execution of young adults for attending political events when they were children.
I know what I shall be asking of our government. The world outside Westminster will be watching to see their replies. Rehashing old lines about “mentioning human rights in meetings” will no longer cut it.
I want to hear that our Government will demand the release of those illegally detained, and that the Saudi Regime will set up courts to ensure those held have recourse to legal representation.
The murder of Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul by members of the Saudi Rapid Intervention Group was a heinous crime. We are yet to receive an answer from the British Government which categorically rules out if the Saudi’s have been active in the UK, be it electronic surveillance of Saudi dissidents, or something more pernicious. Based on what we know, it is not beyond the realms of possibility.
If MBS is serious about reform then he should find an enthusiastic supporter in the UK. While the evidence remains to the contrary, Ministers should have their long-handled spoons within easy reach.
Alistair Carmichael is the MP for Orkney and Shetland