The Prince and the PM

Julian Sayarer

Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, came to Downing Street on Wednesday, having had lunch with the queen. Yesterday evening he dined at Chequers. A petition against his visit, just passing the 10,000 signatures at which the government must respond, elicited a statement assuring the public that British values would be stressed during the visit, and that UK arms export licences were subject to the highest standards of scrutiny concerning their eventual targeting. There are guests at Yemeni funerals who would no doubt beg to differ.

In many ways it was a Brexit meeting. Arms sales to Saudi Arabia have blossomed under the Tories – £4.6 billion since the bombing of Yemen began in March 2015 – and the two leaders' body language in a photo op bolstered the jibes that Britain has been made the Kingdom's vassal state. The large, young prince sat with his arms spread, entirely at ease; Theresa May hugged at her chair arm as if the economy depended on it, but her face appeared to say, with great discomfort, that she is doing something she knows she shouldn't.

Eagerness to control the optics of the visit runs two ways. bin Salman – despite the detention of other members of the Saudi royal family, despite the abduction and forced resignation of the Lebanese prime minister Saad Hariri, despite the war crimes in Yemen – is at pains to be seen as the change candidate. Money was spent on billboards across London, newspaper adverts, a mass of sponsored social media. The protesters outside Downing Street were not convinced.

Protest is outlawed in Saudi Arabia. The activist Raif Badawi was sentenced to 10 years in prison and 1000 lashes (of which 50 were administered; any more would have killed him) for 'insulting Islam through electronic channels'. There are rumours that bin Salman is considering pardoning Badawi: a big ticket announcement, alongside giving women the right to drive, to burnish his reform credentials. But to pardon Badawi for his crime would still be to insist that what he did – writing a blog – is a crime.

Jeremy Corbyn hammered Theresa May with the Saudi visit at Prime Minister’s Questions. He has now said that cabinet members should be held accountable for deaths in Yemen, and questioned May’s wisdom in hosting a known violator of women’s rights on International Women’s Day. Labour's foreign policy agenda is not 'radical', but in line with much of the rest of Europe's: Germany has now banned arms sales to Saudi, following Norway’s decision to suspend sales to the UAE, Saudi’s coalition partner in Yemen.


  • 9 March 2018 at 1:55pm
    staberinde says:
    OK, so you have a nasty regime which now has a new chief. He intends to make the regime less nasty, but it's highly unlikely his reforms will create a liberal democracy.

    As a liberal democracy in need of cash but with little (and diminishing) economic and military influence in the world, but presumably supportive of KSA becoming a less nasty place, less of a sponsor of extremism internationally, and more of a bulwark against Iranian resurgence, should we...

    a) Tell MBS to sod off until he's reformed his country to meet the UK's minimum standards of liberal democracy (what are these again, please)?

    b) Attempt to barter legitimisation for further reforms or policy concessions, such as ending the Yemeni war (is our legitimisation so valuable)?

    c) Accept that some reform is better than none, and that MBS is to be encouraged and supported in the broad despite sharp disagreements about specifics, such as the Yemeni war?

    I wonder whether the writer is consciously making the ideal the enemy of improvement, or whether he simply hasn't thought the matter through?

    • 9 March 2018 at 4:16pm
      Fair enough, but then you're opening a tangential discussion of whether the UK should have a arms industry for strategic reasons, if so whether NATO, EU and Commonwealth demand is sufficient to make the industry commercially sustainable, and finally whether you're willing to cede the influence that arms sales entail (you sell more than just the hardware: it's software, systems and training too) to less scrupulous geopolitical competitors like China, Russia and the US.

    • 10 March 2018 at 12:54am
      Pessoptimist says: @ staberinde
      As stabenride reminds us, if one adopts prima facie MBS' own talking points then thinking "the matter through," becomes positively unnecessary.

      "Iranian resurgence," may be a problem for some people, and these people get a lot of air time in the media, but Iran has not invaded any of its neighbours in a long time. The same cannot be said for those countries - Israel, the US, KSA - who would assume that terms like "Iranian resurgence" should be of the gravest concern to the rest of us.

      Their concern for the fate of Syrians trampled by Assad, with Iran's help, would ring more true if they also could remember Israel's ethnic cleansing of 180 000 Syrians in the Golan Heights in 1967. Which Heights Israel continues to occupy, and, in a fun twist on an old liberal democratic British tradition, settle. Nothing says "I Care" like colonialism. Those Syrians are still waiting to go back home, by the way.

      Unfortunately, whatever MBS' designs for Saudi Arabia, which seem most ambitious indeed, there is little evidence that he is the face of political enfranchisement for his people, or any other people for that matter. Or did we all miss his call for elections in KSA? Bahrain next?

      If the desire is to further political liberalization in the region, then could one flippantly suggest that May should talk to Rouhani, not MBS? Iranian women, we may note, already enjoy the right to drive, the kind of thing that seems to be the only thing some people need to talk about to qualify as liberal reformers. Iran also holds regular general elections, which, while very proscribed, are not inconsequential. A certain kind of liberal reformist might argue that there seems to be something to work with in Iran, which is entirely absent, still, in KSA.

      The problem with a certain kind of liberal reformist is made clear precisely by their selective understanding of which errant yet lovable rogues of the international system should be encouraged with dialogue, trade, and arms deals, no matter how many bloody wars they instigate, and which inveterate fanatics should be remorselessly sanctioned and periodically bombed.

      Those who insist that MBS should have the benefit of a doubt, even after he squandered it the first time around, could at least concede that it may be more important to encourage and support him on the broad issue of making relentless war on neighbouring countries, and let the question of how Saudis govern themselves be one of those specific things one can either agree to agree or disagree on. That idea is otherwise known as third world sovereignty and it is true that buy-in for this idea was never as wholehearted, among the former colonial powers, as they once wanted us to believe. But still, make us dream again May?

      For now the only basis for believing that MBS is somehow a force against violence is to project billboard fantasies unto him. We can't even take his word for it, because he says, de facto, that he will keep doing what he has done since settling into influence, which has been to perpetrate violence on a gruesome scale. Treating such violence as a question of "specifics" is precisely what is required for it to escalate and ramify.

    • 11 March 2018 at 11:17am
      Julian Sayarer says: @ staberinde
      Beyond even the basic and unnecessary immorality of UK weapons sales, in reading the region only through the perspective of the Saudi regime, I think your analysis is wrong.

      You are assuming that we get an incrementally improved (and increasingly top-heavy) hereditary monarchy in one country, but overlook that the policies of that monarchy dismantle another country (Yemen) to the good of few other than Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsular. It also upholds a brutal occupation in Bahrain, an attempt to blockade Qatar for hosting journalism such as Al Jazeera and furthering better ties with more democratic nations than the KSA (first Turkey but now Iran). This is to say nothing of the warfare committed against its own Shiite population.

      I feel that yours is a unipolar perspective of the region, where cosmetic improvements in one nation are seen in isolation and thus as a fair trade for destabilisation in half a dozen others. This sort of view also dominates in Western foreign policy circles, but dangerously so, and urgently needs to adopt more multipolarity.

    • 11 March 2018 at 11:54am
      Fred Skolnik says: @ Pessoptimist
      And your concern for the Syrians who fled the Golan Heights in 1967 would ring more true if you remembered to mention that the Syrian army had been sheling Israeli settlements from the Golan Heights for 20 years and that Syria could have gotten the Golan Heights back within a month if they had been prepared to live in peace with Israel instead of proclaiming at Khartoum: no peace, no negotiations, no recognition.

    • 11 March 2018 at 3:20pm
      Pessoptimist says: @ Fred Skolnik
      You are, as is too often the case, lying through your teeth. I regret having to use language this strong, but the scale of the crime that you are denying, and your reliably vicious endorsement of the policy of ethnic cleansing, here and in previous posts, does, I believe, warrant such language.

      In preamble one may note that civilians often flee in times of war, and that such flight cannot plausibly pose a moral or legal objection to their return to their homes after the end of war. It certainly does not in international law, and cannot, because it would make mass population removal not a crime of war, but a norm. Conquest does not confer a license to ethnically cleanse, in international law.

      The aside is just that, in the case of the Golan Heights, because it was as textbook a case of ethnic cleansing as afforded by recent history:

      After the end of the war every non-Druze Syrian civilian in those parts of the Golan conquered by Israel were expelled by the Israeli government, their villages were razed, and their lands were colonized by Israelis, some of whom were, in a tragic irony, themselves Holocaust survivors.

      Israel Shahak provides a typically searing account.

    • 11 March 2018 at 3:57pm
      Fred Skolnik says: @ Pessoptimist
      The war with Syria, for your information, did not end. The two sides dug in behind ceasefire lines and Syria reaffirmed its declared aim of destroying the State of Israel and massacring its Jewish population. Almost all the Syrians had fled before the fighting ended. "Israel Shahak says" is not evidence of anything. If you wish to play at being a war historian, tell us how these expulsions were carried out, on which dates, by which routes and by which Israeli army units. You are buying into a fiction.

      As for the rest, all I can say is that in view of the current situation in Syria, it's a good thing that the Syrians don't control the Golan Heights. Israel would have to be crazy to let them back up there. But as I said, they could have had it back in a month. The answer was "no peace, not negotiations, no recognition."

  • 10 March 2018 at 8:32pm
    Graucho says:
    We've been here before. When Hitler and Stalin are both minded to force their ideologies down your throat and you are not able to protect yourself against either on your own, you end up backing the one to defeat the other. It is often forgotten that we almost sent troops to back the Finns against the Soviets ( ). Morally laudable, strategically catastrophic if it had ever happened. Neither the Sunnis nor the Shiites care for western values and would eradicate them completely given half a chance. The issue for us is which party presents the greater threat. The moral high ground is an irrelevance.

    • 11 March 2018 at 3:28pm
      Pessoptimist says: @ Graucho
      No worries. There is "no issue for us," because there is no "us." Sadly, you're not alone these days, in wanting to see every Egyptian, Pakistani and Indonesian as a would-be Hitler, with all that such a view would license, but not all Europeans are on your side quite yet. Because when it comes to that kind of racial thinking, we have indeed been here before.

    • 11 March 2018 at 6:48pm
      Graucho says: @ Pessoptimist
      Us are the folk who value freedom of expression, freedom of religion and democracy. Race is neither here nor there in this division. Them are are the folk who heeded Ayatollah Khomeini's fatwa and set about attacking and murdering people. Them are the Pakistanis who have murdered and terrorised one secularist after another in their country. Them are the Taliban who shoot girls who want to have a decent education. Them are the Egyptians who blow up Coptic Christian churches and murder Sufi. Them are the Indonesians who institute blasphemy laws in order to persecute people. Actions have ever spoken louder than words.

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