This month’s visit to the UK of Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (MbS), at the head of a large delegation of Saudi military and business leaders, marks a new low for the Tory government.
It also indicates a major strategic economic priority for the Tory government, as Emily Thornberry put it, “to plug the hole that will be left in Britain’s trade and growth prospects … after Brexit”.
The frequent appearances of Tory Trade Secretary and arch-Brexite, Liam Fox in defending deals with Saudi Arabia was not coincidental. Thornberry might have added that the Tories in their deals with Saudi were ditching even the pretence of abiding by EU law. EU regulations bar selling arm to states where there is a risk of they may be used in a “serious violation of international humanitarian law”.
In the case of Saudi Arabia that would be an understatement.
The casualties of the Saudi war on Yemen are now approaching the horrendous levels seen in Syria.
There has been a military enforced blockade, only partly now lifted on all goods, including food, medicine, fuel, which has created a major crisis. Save the Children reports 130 children die every day. 50,000 children died in 2017.
Most of the deaths have been from preventable diseases such as diarrhoea, malnutrition and cholera. Deaths have also resulted from the many thousands of bombs dropped on Yemen, which, by the Saudis’ own admission, have targeted civilians. There are no current casualty figures available for this. But 14 months ago, the civilian death toll from bombings was reported as being more than 10,000. It will be far higher now.
The Saudi visit would undoubtedly have been used to update Tory commitments to support the war on Yemen through supplying the regime with training, ammunition and servicing of their existing Tornado and Typhoon warplanes. The visit ended with the announcement of the imminent completion of a contract with BAE Systems to supply a further 48 Typhoon fighter planes.
Britain currently supplies 23% of the armaments used by Saudi Arabia, 61% coming from the US, the remainder from the rest of Europe.
Within Saudi Arabia itself about nine million migrant workers live without legal rights and often in near slave dependence on their employer.
In the very week before MbS’s visit two prominent Saudis, Issa al-Nukheifi and Essam Koshak, were sentenced to long terms of imprisonment (six and four years respectively) for criticising Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen, insulting the government and objecting to its decisions, criminal proceedings and security procedures.
They join probably hundreds of democrats in prison, many imprisoned as a result of post Arab Spring activism. Thousands more are in prison for various other forms of dissent.
In November 2017 a law was brought in, by which any Saudi can be jailed as a “terrorist” for five to 10 years if they portray the Saudi rulers “in a manner that brings religion or justice into disrepute.”
Executions in Saudi Arabia, traditionally by beheadings and stonings, continue at a rate that is the second or third highest on the plane, after China and Iran. In the week the Saudi delegation were in Britain, Amnesty made an appeal for 14 men whose execution was considered imminent. The offences included “high treason”, “supporting protests”and “spreading the Shi’a faith”; Shi’a Muslims are Saudi Arabia’s main religious minority.
Both Saudi internal repression and external wars have intensified under MbS.
MbS is only 32. He and his faction of the Saudi ruling class have grown up watching enviously as Al Qaeda and then Daesh each established a major international presence.
Both of these jihadist outfits had exploited the conditions created by Saudi Arabia’s fundamentalist Wahhabist doctrine being propagated across the world by the Saudi state.
Since becoming close to power MbS has also seen Saudi oil revenues dramatically reduced as prices fell.
MbS’s predecessors had been happy to squander their oil money whilst stomping on any democracy at home and using their money to finance pro-Saudi movements in the Muslim world. But MbS’s faction took power with the aim of “modernising” Saudi Arabia.
However, “modernising” does not mean “democracy”.
The recent lifting of the ban on women driving has been portrayed by the government and Saudi apologists as a democratic concession by the Saudi tyrants.
Foolishly Labour MP Naz Shah has lauded the Crown Prince and his “return to moderate Islam”. Going further she called for Britain to “be a candid friend to him” in the hope that the Crown Prince’s “steps… will become strides”.
Fortunately, Emily Thornberry’s take on the Crown Prince and his visit was not so fawning: “Theresa May tells us it is about our mutual security and strategic interests... about Prince Mohammed’s moves to “liberalise” women’s rights… It is all nonsense.”
Indeed. The actual reason behind giving women the right to drive was revealed by a member of Saudi Arabia’s Shura Council and one of the most senior women in Saudi public life. Dr Hoda al-Helaissi, said that with the falling real values of wages, “Saudi households can no longer live comfortably on one salary”. She predicted a further 1.3 million women would join the labour market, making women 30% of the workforce.
For the new Saudi rulers “modernisation” means becoming a major actor on the world stage, particularly the Middle East. It means using Wahhabist religious sectarianism more aggressively across the region. It involves developing a international Sunni “coalition”, now nominally responsible for the Yemen war.
They want to become the most important regional super-power, through the defeat of their main competitor, the sectarian Shi’ite state of Iran.
“Modernisation” also means developing a more diverse capitalist economy that might thrive in the markets of the Middle East as oil revenues continue to diminish. Part of the aim of the Saudi visit to Britain would have been to look for UK business partners in their imminent privatization of Aramco oil and beyond.
Up until now the Saudi regime maintained unity within its ruling class by allowing huge bribery and corruption in its business dealings. But such corruption did not help develop the economy that MbS and his brothers-in-arms want.
To both consolidate his “anti-corruption” message and centralise his control, last November MbS arrested hundreds of Saudi’s most wealthy businessmen, including eleven “princes”. One, Miteb bin Abdullah, famously bought his freedom with a cheque of $1 billion. In total the regime claimed $106 billion had been recovered. Others remain tagged to this day.
Unlike some other oil states such as UAE, Qatar and Kuwait, whose populations are tiny, Saudi’s oil wealth is insufficient to buy off the dissent of all its 33 million people. Some estimate that up to 35% of the Saudi population live on or below the poverty line. As subsidies for fuel and water have disappeared, and prices risen by as much as 50% in the past three years, many poorer Saudis are feeling the brunt of the regime’s austerity and privatisations.
Saudi “modernisation” has increased the risk to MbS of greater dissent both amongst the elite and the poor. And he has met such possible dissent with greater repression.
Whilst there is little history of organised working class protests in Saudi, the post-Arab Spring in 2011-12 saw significant protests from the Shia minority but also from secularists yearning for democratic rights. The road ahead could be rocky.
During MbS’s visit, Emily Thornberry correctly called for a ban on arms sales to Saudi Arabia. But Labour needs to think through the consequences of a ban on the arms trade to tyrants like the Saudis.
The British arms industry, despite only contributing 1% to GDP, is very powerful politically. As the Campaign Against Arms Trade describes it, there is a “revolving door” between the Ministry of Defence and the arms trade through such agencies as the Defence Suppliers Forum and Defence Growth Partnership. They are extensively involved in formulating policy.
Furthermore the British state cossets the private arms industry by underwriting their research costs. It sends ministers and royalty overseas to gain contracts for them. Not surprisingly whilst most heavy and light manufacturing industry have been allowed to contract massively over the last 35 years, the arms industry here and its profits are as strong as ever.
By last September, War Child UK had estimated that the British armaments industry had £6 billion of trade and made £600,000 profit and from supplying Saudi for its war on Yemen alone! This obscene trade in death must be ended. The arms industry must be recognised as the force it is and confronted.
Labour should not just threaten action against supplying arms to regimes committing war crimes like Saudi, it needs to publicly campaign on this.
It needs to prevent the well-connected arms lobbies from generating fear for jobs lost as any arms contracts are cancelled. It needs to act on the TUC policy to create a trade union and Labour Defence Diversification Agency to plan the redeployment of the skilled workforce from the armaments industry into environmentally useful public works. It needs to take the arms industry into democratically accountable public ownership.
But it also needs to be consistent in its treatment of those states who abuse human rights.
Emily Thornberry rightly drew attention to the Tories’ double standards by asking why Saudi was treated different to Iran with its “similar record of domestic human rights abuses, regional intervention and alleged support for terror organisations”.
But the Labour Party too needs to be consistent. Although Britain may not now supply arms to Iran, the labour movement could influence events there and in countries that support the Iranian regime.
Labour should give solidarity to those struggling for democratic rights as well as condemn governments like Russia that arm Iran and its proxy state in Syria.
The labour movement should give solidarity to all people fighting tyranny.