Money over morals – the Saudi dilemma

Following weeks of outright denial and evasion of the truth, Saudi Arabia has now admitted to the death of Jamal Khashoggi at its consulate in Turkey. As an outspoken critic of the Saudi regime and one of the most recognised political pundits of the Arab world, Khashoggi joins a hoard of silenced critics whose untimely demises remain shrouded in secrecy – unlike his own. As more details emerge from this unpleasant turn of events, calls are increasingly growing to react accordingly.

Many across the Arab and Western world are now somewhat justifiably directing blame toward Crown Prince Salman, indicating that the violent assassination was premeditated and sanctioned by the upper echelons of the Saudi establishment. However will the world respond? When earlier this year Russia attempted to assassinate Sergei Skripal on foreign soil, the world was quick to both condemn and sanction. Surely the condemnation of Russia should equally extend to Saudi Arabia, or is the rulebook now defunct?

Our very own Foreign Secretary was quick to condemn the assassination before confirmation, stating on October 9th that ‘if media reports prove correct, we will treat the incident seriously…friendships depend on shared values’. Now, weeks on, such reports have proven correct. The British government is evidently under pressure to impose action against an ‘ally’ that appears to increasingly refute the shared values Mr Hunt spoke of.

Yet, we are boxed into a corner, and the government faces a pressing problem so-far shamefully ignored in respect to Yemen. It is no secret that the UK is now Saudi Arabia’s second largest arms exporter. A recent paper published by Kings College London reported that Britain sold over £6 billion worth of goods to the state in 2016 alone, with an estimated 49% of all British manufactured arms sold to Saudi Arabia annually. A recent Sky News report indicates that arms sales to the nation in 2016 were worth 0.2% of total UK exports for the year. As noted, Anglo-Saudi arms deals are incredibly lucrative, and whilst it isn’t directly the British establishment selling arms to Riyadh, the Treasury receives a handsome cut of the sales in revenue from British defence manufacturers of the likes of BAE Systems. But as the British public continues to ask, at what cost does this come?

As aptly summated by the Independent’s Patrick Cockburn, Khashoggi’s assassination is by no means the worst act carried out by Saudi Arabia since 2015, just the best publicised. It is now indisputable that the nation’s bombing campaign in Yemen has killed thousands of innocent civilians, and has instigated a devastating humanitarian crisis that the world is comfortably turning a blind eye to. In short, for as long as the UK continues to sell weapons to the Saudi state – (alongside providing military training to their air force) – we are turning a blind eye to the atrocities being committed, and in many ways, aiding and abetting. Dare I say it.

Only last week did Members of the European Parliament vote unanimously for an EU-wide arms embargo on Saudi Arabia. May’s government has repeatedly rejected calls to end sales, stressing the importance of upholding good relations with the UK’s key ally in the Middle East. And whilst such countries can more likely afford to take this stance (cue pointed glance to Germany) it is imperative that Britain maintains moral consistency and condemns Saudi Arabia in the same way it did Russia. Further, the government must do better to justify its Saudi ally to the British public, and would do well to diversify its arms market and suspend the sale of limited arms to send a clear message about what, as a nation, we will and will not tolerate. Can’t we afford to behave better?