6 January 2007

We should be dealing with Saudi Arabians, but not by selling them arms

By Liam Carroll

Since the Arabian tribes helped the British and the French throw the Turks out of the Arabian Peninsula over ninety years ago, the UK has enjoyed strong relations with Saudi Arabia. The relationship has largely revolved around the Kingdom’s huge oil reserves which have allowed the House of Saud, it's ruling family, to indulge in excessive military spending.

The proportion of the country's wealth spent on weapons from the West though is a source of tension inside Saudi Arabia, and has long been used by radical Islamic militants in anti government preaching. Further dissatisfaction with the regime stems from the House of Saud’s resistance to constitutional reform and their failure to guarantee increased civil liberties.

While the UK Government may claim to be a partner in pushing for political reforms in Saudi Arabia, the recent intervention by the Government into the Serious Fraud Office investigation into a BAE/Saudi arms deal has raised serious questions about the UK's priorities.

The official line from the Foreign Office was "UK-Saudi relations are very strong. The UK and Saudi Arabia have intertwined and inseparable interests in our attempts to combat global terrorism and improving regional stability."

A serious scandal is now brewing around the Government's intervention; however the real scandal surrounds the fact that we sell weapons to Saudi Arabia at all. Saudi Arabia is an odious regime where political oppression, torture, executions and blatant denial of the rights of women are deeply entrenched. Further to this, most people live in poverty while the Royal Family squanders the countries vast oil wealth. Superficially, the UK economy benefits from such extravagance as British registered companies like BAE Systems fill their order books with billion dollar contracts. Yet on a deeper level our cosy relationship has been a disaster.

The failure of the West to encourage political reforms inside Saudi Arabia, combined with seemingly unrestricted arms sales has been one of the rallying cries of the radical Islamic militants who have massively increased the number of attacks against mostly UK and US targets inside the Kingdom.

Saudi Arabia is home to the most extreme form of Islam, the Wahhabi religion. The Taliban are Wahhabi's, Osama Bin Laden is a Wahhabi, and so are the Saudi Arabian Royal Family.

How does 9/11 and the war in Afghanistan and the wider War on Terror help balance the benefits derived from all those arms deals? Saudi Arabians formed the largest national contingent of those seized in Afghanistan and taken to Guantanamo. Fatwas have been issued by prominent Saudi clerics calling on muslims to support the Sunni insurgency in Iraq.

Is that what the Foreign Office means by "inseperable interests in our attempts to combat global terrorism and improving regional stability"? I think I know what they do mean. Militants that wish to bring down the Saudi Royal family are at work in what is the homeland to the two most sacred shrines of Islam, Mecca and Medina. These militants have a ready source of recruits amongst the discontented subjects of the regime, and the radical ideology to go with it. No one in Europe or across the Atlantic could tolerate such a situation and the message from the Foreign Office is clear; "we must stand shoulder to shoulder with the Saudi's as they attempt to keep a lid on the widespread discontent in their regime".

But where has this discontent come from? It stems from the utterly foolish way in which the Saudis have squandered the countries vast oil wealth on arms when they should have been investing in education, training facilities and hospitals and other institutions of social welfare.

We do the Saudi Arabian Royal Family no favours by indulging their taste for ever more expensive and advanced jet fighters. Instead of wilting in the face of billion dollar contracts the Government needs to use its good relations to insist on progressive democratic developments. If our interests really are inseparable then its about time we fought for genuine stability based on sound governance and respect for human rights, not the maintenance of the status quo.

No doubt British officials in the last century found it easier to appease the feelings of the Saudi Arabian rulers rather than push for meaningful political reforms. It may be tempting to continue to do the same today as large orders come rolling in for prominent British companies like BAE Systems. The real costs may be further down the line, and it maybe only then that we realise we have been conducting the wrong kind of deals.