The Liberal Democrats have committed to holding the Government to account over the promises David Cameron made in the debate over airstrikes in Syria. The Liberal Democrats believe that the UK’s relationship with Saudi Arabia continues to be a key concern.
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is the antithesis of a liberal state. Despite nods to opening up the democratic process in the recent years, the reality is that this is still a country where nearly all freedoms are restricted.
The involvement of Saudi Arabia is critical to the success of the Syrian Peace Process. Saudi Arabia carries a huge amount of influence in the region. It is considered a spiritual leader by many Sunnis and has the resources and convening power to bring together disparate groups as well the means by which to help squeeze supply lines to ISIL and other militant groups.
Saudi Arabia also has its own agenda, and is committed to maintaining its own regional power while diminishing the power of the Iranian State and Shia Muslims. This is most visible in the Sunni/Shia cold war playing out in Yemen at severe humanitarian cost.
The UK government has a responsibility to engage with Saudi Arabia as a key regional state, but it is important that this engagement does not become complicit acceptance of all that Saudi Arabia does, either internally or externally.
We believe there are a number of areas where the UK government’s interaction with Saudi Arabia is hypocritical, illiberal and ultimately endangers any chance of long term stability in the Middle East. Liberal Democrat Parliamentarians will be putting pressure on the UK government in the following areas:
- Arms Trade. There is considerable evidence that British-supplied weapons are being used in Yemen to specifically target civilians and to destroy Yemeni cities. This is a breach international humanitarian law, and we are calling for the suspension of new arms contracts with Saudi Arabia pending independent verification of this evidence.
- ISIL Supply Lines. Not enough has been done to establish how ISIL is receiving weapons, finding buyers for oil or being funded. Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States need to commit to stamping out any funding of ISIL from within their borders, and the UK government should be explicit about this demand.
- Human Rights, Internal Executions and Medieval Punishment. We cannot hold countries across the world to account for oppression, executions and torture if we do not condemn it universally. Following the execution of 47 people in early January, Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond mitigated his criticism by saying “these were convicted terrorists” and FCO minister Tobias Ellwood said he was “disappointed”. That is a pathetic response, and we will not allow the UK government to cower away from criticising what is an inexcusable and disgusting practice. Similarly, the treatment of women and minority groups in Saudi Arabia is some of the worst in the world, and it is inexcusable that the UK supported their application to the Human Rights Council. We believe the government should reverse this decision and publically call for Saudi Arabia to step down. Finally, the UK is involved in a number of bilateral programmes with Saudi Arabia, including through our Department of Justice and through the Home Office. Complete details of this involvement should be made public, including the “memorandum of understanding” between each department and the Saudi government, which the UK government is currently refusing to publish.
- Shia/Sunni Sectarian Incitement. The decision by the Saudi regime to execute Shia cleric Nimr al Nimr along with 46 others was not an act of national security- it was religiously motivated and a clear message to Shia Muslims throughout the region. Religion is a defining feature of countries throughout the world, but when championing the supremacy of your own religion leads you to deliberate provocation and persecution of another and risks further destabilising an already fragile region, it is right for the UK government to condemn those actions fully and without caveat.
On 5th January, Tim Farron raised a number of these points in Parliament:
“The executions over the weekend, including that of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, must surely raise fundamental questions about the United Kingdom’s relationship with Saudi Arabia. People in the UK have every right to want to know what arrangements we are entering into as a country with another country that has acted with such brutality and with such disregard to the impact of its actions on co-operation across the middle east, especially in the light of the Vienna process and the ongoing conflict involving Daesh. Will the Government now commit to publishing both the memorandum of understanding on security, which was signed by the Home Secretary on behalf of the United Kingdom, and the memorandum of understanding on judicial co-operation, both of which have been withheld in full despite Freedom of Information Act requests? Bearing in mind the Saudi Government’s appalling record on human rights, especially the rights of women, will the Government call on Saudi Arabia to step down from chairing the UN Human Rights Council? The Minister carefully avoided condemning the actions of Saudi Arabia over the weekend, so will he do so now? Clearly, Saudi Arabia has a great influence over this Government. Will this Government now prove that they have some influence over Saudi Arabia?”