By Stephen Hawkins
What kind of line must Saudi Arabia cross before Britain stops defending the regime and starts politically and economically isolating the state?
There is a number of approaches when one poses the question of how Britain can deal with a state that consistently and persistently violates human rights, follows a fundamentally Islamist agenda, and executes its own citizens. This is, by no means, an easy question. However, past and current experience shows us which is the stance that Britain should take towards an illiberal Saudi Arabia, and that is to stop hoping that Saudi Arabia can change solely through a positive influence from the West.
The positive influence argument says we should continue working with Saudi Arabia because persistent interaction with the Western world lets them know the rewards of liberalism and capitalism. Despite the crimes the state might commit now, avoiding engagement would only push the country further to the extreme. Instead, exposing the country to western values can modernise the government and the people and bring about change and further improvements to the political, economic, and social spectrum of Saudi Arabia, including an increasing respect and protection of human rights.
This is a bitter pill to swallow when the state murders its citizens for the crimes of atheism, ‘black magic’, adultery and liberal protest. There is a principled argument to stop working with the Saudis: their illiberal barbaric immoral and inhuman actions, which surely makes a mockery of human right laws give us an overriding reason to fight and contain the country.
[E]xposing the country to western values can modernise the government and the people, bring about change and further improvements to the political, economic, and social spectrum of Saudi Arabia, including an increasing respect and protection of human rights.
However, the cooperationists argue, if we keep working with the country, they will gradually liberalise. The Saudi Crown Prince, Mohammed Bin Salman al Saud, has been won over – he has brought women’s rights to the country and wants to be a proponent of moderate Islam, he says. Thus, there might be hope in the cooperationist’s front, but is the answer so straight-forward and easy?
The cooperationists have had the ear of government for years and have run government policy. Recent events show the crimes of the Saudi state. Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi journalist and critic of the Crown Prince, was tortured and murdered at the Turkish consulate by the Saudi government. For Turkey to make such an allegation is shocking, not only because of the number of international laws this would violate from the sacredness of embassies to the freedom from torture.
Turkey is a natural ally of the Saudi state with close economic ties, but the political climate had continually soured in the last few years. The country would not risk worsening the situation lightly. They have claimed a litany of evidence showing that the Saudi state had broken international law, however, and countries around the world are reacting.
The Saudi state sees Turkey as engaging in selfish political meddling and reacted with acid irritation at the UK stance. In picking no side, the UK has pleased no one.
In the UK government, the elites are scrambling. First, Jeremy Hunt issued a lukewarm statement saying he took the matter seriously. Intransigently not taking sides, he asked for joint Saudi-Turkish efforts. The compromise pleased no one. Erdoğan is seeking to politically isolate Saudi Arabia for this crime and Hunt’s announcement does the opposite of that. The Saudi state sees Turkey as engaging in selfish political meddling and reacted with acid irritation at the UK stance. In picking no side, the UK has pleased no one.
Turkey is almost certainly politically maneuvering and would brush things under the carpet if they had any doubt over how or why Khashoggi was killed. However, this does not change the facts: Saudi Arabia is extremely likely to have tortured and killed a political dissenter seeking asylum in another country in that country’s own embassy.
The cooperationist argument has not been effective nor convincing. Saudi Arabia cares most of all about maintaining its regime, not protecting its citizens. The UK needs to shift its foreign policy towards defending human rights and liberal democracy abroad.
Positive influence has failed. The Saudi regime imprisons, tortures, and kills its political opponents. If Britain lets them brush this issue back under the carpet, we have admitted we cannot influence the Saudis in any way and have sacrificed Western values in pursuit of profit. We must take a hard line and prepare to sanction the Saudi state to show that Britain, and the West, care about exporting universal human values abroad.
Most recently, and hopefully representing a change in attitude, Liam Fox, the Secretary of State for International Trade, had canceled his appearance at a Saudi investment summit as well as the US Treasury Secretary. This might be a shift towards a more critical attitude to the Saudi state.
Hopefully, we will continue to see an opposition to Saudi crimes, take a hard line and prepare to sanction the Saudi state to show that Britain cares about exporting universal human values abroad.