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More than arms—Britain’s link with Saudi Arabia’s despotic ruling family

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Issue 2476
Saudi minister addresses UN Human Rights Council

Saudi minister addresses UN Human Rights Council (Pic: UN Geneva/Flickr)

David Cameron came under fire this month over a plan to hire out British prison officials to train their Saudi counterparts.

That Saudi prison system is currently planning to behead and crucify 17 year old Ali Mohammed al-Nimr for attending a protest. 

It’s also making headlines over plans to give 74 year old British national Karl Andree 360 lashes for transporting homemade wine.

These examples barely scratch the surface of injustice in one of the world’s most repressive regimes, notorious for its treatment of women and migrant workers (see below). 


Why is the British government so friendly with it? Cameron was eventually forced to cancel the £5.9 million contract—not without fierce resistance in case it hurt the government’s “wider interests”.

Telegraph columnist Con Coughlin railed against letting an “unnecessary diplomatic squabble” over human rights spoil a “strategic relationship” with “the region’s rapidly emerging military superpower”.

Saudi Arabia now has the world’s fourth highest military spending at £37 billion a year, having overtaken Britain and France and rapidly catching up with Russia.

And it has used its firepower to devastating effect in the Saudi-led bombing and invasion of Yemen. 

More than 2,300 civilians have been killed, according to the United Nations—with an estimated 130 deaths from one airstrike on a wedding last month. 

Many of the planes it is using are British-made Typhoons and Tornados.

Saudi Arabia has also made itself the headquarters of counter-revolution in the Middle East. It is one of the main financial backers of Egypt’s murderous regime.

And it sent troops to crush the uprising against its client regime in Bahrain. There too British-made weapons were used. 


Britain’s military export licences to Saudi Arabia include “crowd-control” ammunition, hand grenades and teargas.

Saudi contracts bring huge profits for British arms exporters—who have repeatedly been in trouble over corruption to keep them coming. In a £2 billion contract in 2010, one firm allegedly put £300 million straight into offshore bank accounts for kickbacks to Saudi officials.

Despite the prison U-turn, these arms exports keep flowing.

But the link between Britain’s rulers and the despotic House of Saud is about more than money. It goes right back to Saudi Arabia’s surprisingly modern origins.

Britain’s government signed a pact with reactionary warlord Abdul Aziz Ibn Saud 100 years ago.

The West’s backing helped Ibn Saud establish a dynasty—and keeps it in power today. And the Saudis gave the imperialist powers a bulwark against movements that could have challenged them.

Today the West’s disastrous wars and the crushing of the Arab revolutions have plunged the Middle East into a chaos that threatens both the warmongers and the regimes.

That common interest puts them in a bind that neither can afford to break.

Workers are forced to risk their lives in unsafe conditions in the Saudi construction boom
Workers are forced to risk their lives in unsafe conditions in the Saudi construction boom (Pic: Edward Muslak/Flickr)

Slavery and bigotry—the regime the Tories support 

The Saudi government is entirely made up of princes, hand-picked for their ministerial posts by the king. Its elites live in staggering opulence—the fruits of the country’s oil wealth.

But for the migrants who make up most of its working class it’s a different story.

Violent mass deportations have been a regular occurrence in recent years. The authorities boasted of deporting 300,000 people in the five months to March of this year—a rate of 2,000 a day.

Around half a million migrant domestic workers work in Saudi Arabia. 

Many of them are on visas that deny them the right to change jobs and require the employer’s permission to leave the country. This traps them in “near slavery”. 

Horrific cases of abuse, rape, imprisonment and torture have come to light.


The Saudi construction boom is built on the bodies of workers forced to risk their lives in unsafe conditions.

This led to the shocking crane collapse in Mecca that killed over 100 people during the Hajj pilgrimage last month. Over 1,600 pilgrims were killed in a crush that the Saudi authorities initially tried to blame on the victims.

Women are banned from driving, and need the permission of a male guardian—typically their father, husband or brother—for most aspects of their lives.

Adultery can be punishable by death. So can homosexuality.

Shia Muslims and other religious minorities face widespread official and unofficial discrimination.

But the Arab Spring showed that the Saudi regime was no more immune to challenge from below than its neighbours. 

Women held a driving campaign, workers walked out and street protests demanded democracy.

The tensions that produced that revolt haven’t gone away.

Top Tory Islamophobe - Michael Gove

Top Tory Islamophobe – Michael Gove (Pic: Policy Exchange/Flickr)

Gove has his own agenda

 Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn rightly opposed the Saudi prison deal. But so did Tory justice secretary Michael Gove.

Not only is Gove an expert self-publicist but he is also an Islamophobe obsessed with rooting out “extremism”. He wrote a book after the 7/7 bombings calling for an end to “appeasement” of Islamic fundamentalism.

This would mean scapegoating and spying on Muslims in Britain on an unprecedented scale. Gove put his crusade into practice as education secretary, with the “Trojan Horse” witch hunt into Birmingham schools.


That such a bigot could rise to a senior cabinet position is a product of New Labour and the Tories’ turn to Islamophobia. 

This helped first to justify the “War on Terror”, then to deflect anger at austerity away from themselves.

The ideological movement most influential on real Islamic fundamentalists is the one promoted by the Saudi regimes.

British politicians use racist myths about “Asian values” or the “traditions” of other societies to justify backing dictators. The Saudis are no exception.

The Tories’ excuses collide with their scapegoating—exposing the hypocrisy of both.

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