Leading article

Britain should not mistake its allies for friends

Gove was right to pull out of the deal to train prison officers in Saudi Arabia

17 October 2015

8:00 AM

17 October 2015

8:00 AM

It would be hard to dream up a more absurd piece of political satire than an agency of the British government called Just Solutions International winning a contract to train prison officers in a country that has executed 175 people in the past year, many of them in public beheadings for offences such as sorcery, witchcraft, adultery and political activism. That it sought this contract in the first place is a sign of the great void at the heart of our foreign policy.

This week, the Justice Secretary, Michael Gove, pulled out of the deal with Saudi Arabia — thereby attracting the ire of the Foreign Secretary, Philip Hammond, who called him ‘naive’ for doing so. That is a word better applied to Mr Hammond. A Saudi Supreme Court ruling dating from February decrees that judges may pass down the death sentence even if an offence has not been proved beyond reasonable doubt. How could Hammond lecture other countries on human rights if Britain were to collude with this medieval penal system?

Saudi Arabia is no friend of Britain. The country not only encourages but exports the Islamic extremism we are having to confront at home and abroad. That said, no government can divorce itself from history, and our policy in the region must be based on a hard-headed assessment of the available options. Although Michael Gove is quite right to refuse to co-operate with the Saudi penal system, it is equally right that the government should continue to co-operate with the country because of our mutual defence interests. The country may not be a friend of Britain’s, but it is an ally. For all its faults, Saudi Arabia is not an aggressive, expansionist nation. Surrounded by more belligerent regimes, it is an important counterbalance against the growing aggression of Iran.


Charles Moore, in the second volume of his superb biography of Margaret Thatcher, describes how keen Thatcher was to sell aircraft to the Saudi air force. This makes sense: arms sales are the iron of diplomacy, and nations ought to co-operate with their allies. The Saudis would not use RAF Tornados to oppress their own people — they have the justice system for that. This is where we should draw the line: if they are going to behead Shiite protesters, they do not need to do so with British steel.

An absolutist moral stance on foreign policy is impossible to achieve, as the late Robin Cook quickly discovered with his disastrous ‘ethical foreign policy’. When a dictator declares war on his own people, is the moral response to invade, remove him and try to rebuild the state as a democracy; to arm and assist rebels who are seeking to overthrow him; or to keep out of it altogether? In the past decade and a half we have tried all of these approaches, in Iraq, Libya and Syria — and as we have seen, there is no right answer. Sweeping out a dictator too often hands power to fundamentalists.

It is naive to think that we can remake countries in our own image. We might, through sanction or influence, win some battles over human rights, but it is arrogance to think we can impose democracy in countries that have never known it. A great error was made during the War on Terror when it was assumed that history was moving our way and that, with a nudge, the Arab world would embrace western-style democracy. As we have seen in Iraq and Libya, the momentum is with Islamists, who stand ready to fill any power vacuum.

Next week, we will witness a spectacle which is almost more embarrassing than any contract with Saudi Arabia. To compound the horror, it is one in which the Queen has been commandeered to play a role. The Chinese President Xi Jinping will be given a state banquet at Buckingham Palace and invited to Parliament. According to those with knowledge of the arrangements, the visit is likely to resemble the reception of Queen Victoria as Empress of India.

Would such hospitality be afforded to the leader of a communist superpower if our government were not so hungry for Chinese cash to fund George Osborne’s pet projects? It is worth noting that even the Saudis were being groomed for possible investment in the disastrous Hinkley Point C nuclear power project. When Xi visited the United States, the Obama administration made sure that he was confronted with difficult questions — not just about human rights, but about the regular cyber-attacks made by Chinese hackers on western companies. Osborne has a different agenda: to present Britain as China’s most sycophantic friend. In his mind this advances British interests, because he thinks money will flow.

An ethical foreign policy always was pie in the sky, but it is unedifying to see our diplomats turned into salesmen, and foreign policy effectively auctioned off to the -highest bidder. Our relationship with China has become a fawning one, completely at odds with the lectures on human rights that we give to other, less economically powerful dictator states. If Michael Gove has this week demonstrated a more questioning attitude to our relations with unsavoury regimes, that is much to be welcomed.

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  • victor67

    Are the Saudi’s our allies.
    They spread wahabism globally which is the ideological basis for ISIL. They also provided 15 of the 19 9/11 terrorists.
    These things it seems can all be overlooked with £13 billion worth of trade and BAE systems profits. Surely the jobs that are dependent on this blood money can be transferred to something that would benefit humanity.

  • Atlas

    We send enormous sums of money to Saudi Arabia for oil and gas, getting some of it back in the form of contracts for arms and advice seems pretty sensible economically speaking.

    If people in the Middle East want to kill each other then more power to them, the only country in that part of the world about which we should have much concern is Israel.

  • Arthur

    Oh well. One day the oil will run out and God wont help when Iran, Syria or Iraq want some payback!

  • Gilbert White

    Well we have roles in and accommodate the UN quite happily so why not Saudia Arabia?

  • Gilbert White

    The only real answer is for China, Russia and The US. using the UN to force multiculturalism on Mecca and Medina. This would solve the muslim problem at a stroke.

  • Jackthesmilingblack

    “Smoking gun emails reveal Blair’s ‘deal in blood’ with George Bush over Iraq war was forged a YEAR before the invasion had even started – despite claiming he wanted peace”
    When the $*** hits the fan, there’s one thing you can be sure of. Namely, that the Spectator will be sitting on its hands and whistling Dixie.
    Jack, the Japan Alps Brit

    • Clive

      As revelations go, it amounts to practically nothing

      Tony Blair has always made it clear that he was keen on the Iraq War – possibly keener than GW Bush. It would not be surprising if he committed himself early in the email to be revealed.

      So what.

      • Jackthesmilingblack

        Blair was lying through his teeth.
        But, hey, what else is new!

  • omgamuslim

    Have the Iranians staged a coup in or an invasion of the UK?

  • boiledcabbage

    Sell the Aircraft Carriers to the Saudis. They are that stupid they would probably buy them, too, to wave at Iran.

    • Clive

      The Argentines had an aircraft carrier which went pretty much unused during the Falklands War. It was British built, although we did not sell it to them directly.

  • Clive

    First of all, there’s the ideological problem in this piece. It is not communism that is the problem. It is totalitarianism. The government of Kerala is frequently communist and I doubt we have any problem dealing with them. The government of India is Hindu Nationalist, potentially much more nasty. We are also ‘fawning’ over them.

    The problem is totalitarianism which is practised in China as well as in Saudi Arabia. It leads to endemic corruption which the Chinese are trying to combat – not for any ethical reason, I believe but just in order to survive the wrath of the people who will cheerfully string up those they catch.

    The Saudis don’t even attempt to combat corruption.

    Foreign policy over time has changed gradually. It used to be all about interests with very little regard to ethics. If there were ethical considerations at all they were at the whim of the officials concerned.

    Now we have a more transparent world. The ethics are more visible. That has a political consequence in that nations are more ready to ‘take offence’ at diplomatic slights. It is still about interests in that those perceived ‘slights’ appear calculated to further the interests of the ‘slighted’ nation.

    It is a variation on the usual political game. Arguably, it is the international version of politicians who are ‘angry’ or ‘furious’ at some opposing politician’s behaviour – but their apoplexy is in a press release.

    So the Chinese are ‘angry’ at David Cameron’s receiving of the Dalai Lama. Now the Chinese have what they want, David Cameron not receiving the Dalai Lama. Now the Chinese are ‘happy’. An interest served. Tiber that little bit more secure.

    This seems to be a world where the diplomacy of perceptions counts for as much as realities on the ground – like troop movements. Nations seem to want to cultivate an image for sometimes targeted consumption. The Chinese cultivate non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries, for instance. It serves them well for inspection of their own governance by others and it goes down well with autocratic rulers in Africa.

    So people like Philip Hammond and Michael Gove have to attach a cost to a perceived slight to another nation, particularly a totalitarian nation because without internal dissent, they are much more sensitive to the external.

    Then again, the Saud are in a war so they want allies. Perhaps now is a good time to give them a kicking. The Chinese are in no wars and they are reorganising their economy toward consumer demand. The Chinese have considerable potential as consumers of financial services as well, I believe. So be nice to them.

    It’s all a bit sickening, all a bit wearying – it’s just politics.

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