On Tuesday, in the House of Commons, I welcomed the decision by the Justice Secretary Michael Gove to end a lucrative prisons contract for £6 million with the Saudi authorities.
I said that he spoke for the whole House and probably most of my constituents too.
This volte face was not specifically about this week’s news of their shocking treatment of British citizen pensioner Karl Andree who has been sentenced to be lashed for keeping a stash of illegal hooch or the case of blogger Raif Badawi, facing multiple lashings or even the sentence of death by execution via crucifixtion of teenage protester Ali Al-Nimr, all shocking cases.
However, the cumulative revulsion of the civilised world at the Saudi judicial system has nevertheless led to a rethink of the UK’s relationships with Saudi Arabia. A fundamental question is surely now:
Are lucrative business deals with the country (and others like it) and the jobs and prosperity that they entail a price worth paying for undermining our reputation across much of the world, in this the year of Magna Carta’s 800th anniversary, for fairness, transparency, freedom, civilised values and democracy?
The UK was recently found to be the pre-eminent state in the world for so called “soft power”, in that its influence and power across the globe far outstripped its size, population or economic clout. Our reputation is one of a benign force for good which will stand up for what is right and under the rule of law even acknowledge our own imperfect past.
Of course, I am not naive and can understand the horse trading and moral bargains that have to be struck with regimes we don’t particularly like and whose values are miles away from our own but where do we draw the line?
More to the point, can we lecture others on human rights whilst keeping such unsavoury company?
We are told that the Saudis are our allies and provide much needed intelligence for us in the global fight against jihadist terror but are they really our friends when they export hateful ideologies and financially support some of the most repugnant terror groups across the Middle East? Should Britain be aiding the work of a penal system which chops heads and hands, stones people to death, crucifies and flogs, including for the supposed “crimes” of being gay, committing adultery or writing a blog? Clearly Michael Gove doesn’t think so.
I agree with him.
I accept that we have to an extent prosperity in the UK riding on the stability of the Saudi regime and the mortal fear that something even more horrible might follow it if it were displaced.
However, being British is about clinging to ethical values and a longstanding belief in the basic tenets of civilisation – even in this most brutal, nasty and dark world – or it is meaningless?