Souring Saudi Relations? Why the UK is unwilling to downgrade its relationship with Saudi Arabia



Saudi Arabia has finally admitted to the pre-meditated murder of the political commentator Jamal Khashoggi, following weeks of denial. In doing so, the House of Saud is admitting to the violation of a huge number of legal, as well as moral, codes. However, this article will explore why it is naïve to expect the UK to downgrade its diplomatic relationship with the Saudis.

Khashoggi, a Saudi citizen who worked for the Washington Post and whose earlier criticism of the Saud regime had forced him to flee the country, walked into the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul on 2nd October and never came out.

it is naïve to expect the UK to downgrade its diplomatic relationship with the Saudis

Torture methods included his fingers being cut off, and dismemberment, before being carried out of the building in plastic bags. 

A Turkish official who analysed the audio recording told the New York Times that it was “like a scene from Pulp Fiction”. Khasshogi’s murder, while abhorrent in its own right, is politically significant for a number of reasons.

Firstly, the murder, despite taking place in Saudi Arabia’s embassy, was conducted on foreign soil, thus acting against international law – similar to the Russian novichok poisonings. Secondly, the murder of a journalist flies against the liberal democracy that the West sees itself as an advocate and protector of. Basic proponents of freedom of speech fundamentally state that you cannot simply murder a journalist who is critical of your regime.

Unsurprisingly this has led to widespread and global public condemnation, of both Saudi Arabia’s actions and also the Western coalition’s relationship and leniency towards the regime committing them. Undoubtedly, all states will condemn these actions – their perfected global façade of being ‘moral actors’ necessitates as much. However, the UK and US will be reluctant to downgrade relations with the Middle Eastern state due to short-term economic and security concerns, as well the long-term geo-strategic consequences of offending Saudi Arabia which they have created.

you cannot simply murder a journalist who is critical of your regime

It is not surprising to anyone following Saudi Arabian politics that the new crown prince and effective ruler Muhammad Bin Salman would want to silence political dissidents – he has been doing it since he took power in 2016. In 2017 under the banner of anti-corruption, Bin Salman purged his government of scores of political opponents, aiming to further consolidate his position in power.

These acts would make for big if they were taking place in an ‘enemy’ state. However, the desire to maintain an allied status has significantly influenced the way that Saudi government policies have been framed in Western media.  Whilst a lot was made of the 2018 decree allowing women to drive (lifting the only gender driving ban in the world), the arrest of huge numbers of women’s rights activists earlier this year was kept relatively quiet.

In a similar respect, Saudi Arabia’s campaign in Yemen continually fails to make front page news, despite having killed thousands of civilians in indiscriminate air strikes, including on refugee camps and hospitals in what UN investigators have confirmed amount to war crimes. It was just weeks ago that the regime was responsible for the bombing of a school bus in Yemen, killing 51 people, 40 of whom were Yemeni school children, coming back from a school trip. Yet mention of the Saudi involvement was tempered and largely unquestioned in the Western press coverage.

Equally, little is mentioned of the Saudis’ dependence on our respective governments. Bruce Riedel, a former CIA analyst, said back in 2016 that “The Royal Saudi Air Force cannot operate without American and British support”. It seems that the UK and US governments could effectively pull the plug on the Saudis’ bombing campaign in Yemen whenever they liked – a sober realization when you think of how many have died since 2016.

Yet the reason for the West’s radio silence during these acts blatantly injurious to the liberal democracy which the West prides itself upon, is the same reason why both the UK and US are unlikely to go beyond verbal denunciation this time: the relationship is seen in Whitehall and Washington as a diplomatic, security and economic necessity. This is primarily because our ‘liberal-democratic’ coalition has been funding, arming and supporting the autocratic state for decades, with the desire of having a powerful ally in the middle east that can carry out their realist policies, and challenge the Iran–Russia coalition. The price we pay in return is in allowing Saudi Arabia the freedom to continue its restrictive domestic regime and its murderous policies abroad.

the relationship is seen in Whitehall and Washington as a diplomatic, security and economic necessity

The West has succeeded in bringing this monster to life, bestowing on it political and economic power to challenge the regional hegemony of Iran. However the product is not as palatable, nor as easily controllable, as they hoped.

Recognising this context to the relationship, it becomes clear that the likelihood of the UK downgrading their diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia –  widely accused as having one of the worst human rights records in the world – is extremely unlikely even in the wake of such an atrocity. What liberals should fear is that we will not just maintain the relationship, but overcompensate our placation due to the fear that public condemnation has offended our monster.

Image by via Wiki Commons


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