Talking Politics

Cameron’s Saudi trip betrays the victims of terrorism

Two weeks ago, Saudi Arabia threatened Britain. The Commons foreign affairs committee had the temerity to launch an inquiry into Britain's relationship with Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. The Saudis were "insulted". They would be "re-evaluating their country's historic relations with Britain" and "all options will be looked at", they told the BBC.

The comment was a clear threat directed at BAE System's efforts to supply the next £7 billion of Typhoon jets to the country. That's just a part of it. As the world's leading oil producer, we do about £4 billion bilateral trade with the Saudis a year. We need them more than they need us.

So today, David Cameron will prostitute himself in Saudi Arabia. "On human rights, there are no no-go areas in this relationship," he told reporters as he stopped off in Dubai. It's the same line he uses with China. It means nothing.

Cameron's cap-in-hand visit to Saudi Arabia is a betrayal of all those fighting for democracy in the Middle East and of terrorism victims at home, whose attackers rely on Saudi funds to carry out their crimes.

When Wikileaks released a tranche of diplomatic cables in 2010, one of the most telling came from US secretary of state Hillary Clinton. Financial donors in the kingdom "constitute the most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide", she wrote in a secret cable. "It has been an ongoing challenge to persuade Saudi officials to treat terrorist financing emanating from Saudi Arabia as a strategic priority".

Remember the Mumbai attacks of 2008? A combination of bombings and lone gunmen killed 164 people. The militant group which carried it out, Lashkar-e-Toiba, is understood to have secured the money in Saudi Arabia via a charity group raising money for schools. Taliban sources regularly use the United Arab Emirates, where Cameron stopped off on his way to Saudi Arabia, to launder money.

Al-Qaida, the Taliban and Hamas all secure funding from Saudi Arabia, often during the Haj, when pilgrims travel to the country with wads of cash. The Saudi's, in a rare instance of self-criticism revealed by the Wikileaks disclosure, admit the pilgrimage is "a vacuum in our security". Militants and donors enter the kingdom and exchange funds and launder money through front companies and charities.

The West's continued subservience to the very forces it is fighting elsewhere perpetuates a threat to our national security. And our acceptance of its human rights violations turns us into hypocrites on the international stage. Britain is laughed at when it wags it finger over human rights abuses and you can see why. For every sensible decision, such as the military operation in Libya, there is a humiliating foreign trip such as the one Cameron is currently undertaking. Who can blame our critics for saying that human rights are a shield for the west to hide its strategic calculations? Who could possibly argue the Saudi's are better than the other dictators we condemn so frequently, but who are unfortunate enough not to have a mass of oil on their territory or lucrative trade deals with London-based companies?

This August, the only man to reach Saudi Arabia's Arab Spring-linked 'day of rage', Khaled al-Johani,  was released from prison - 17 months after he was detained. This September, two founders of a human rights organisation went on trial for criticising Saudi authorities.

Mohammad Fahad al-Qahtani is a good example of how Saudi Arabia treats those who question the status quo. He has been charged with setting up an unlicensed organisation (probably the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association — it's hard to tell) and "breaking allegiance to the ruler". The Saudis are as bad as any of the tin-pot dictators we condemn in flowery terms in other countries.

All foreign policies are a crude mixture of idealism and realpolitik. When it comes to international negotiations and bilateral talks, principles necessarily operate within the restrictions of national interest. But the tragic aspect of Britain's continued subservience to Saudi Arabia is that Cameron is sacrificing our national interest for that of BAE systems.

Of course, no-one is privy to the conversations that take place behind closed doors, but Washington and London have had decades to convince the Saudis to stop the funding of terrorism by its citizens and the laundering of money by Taliban forces — money which is eventually spent killing our troops. They have singularly failed.

Even outside of terrorist funding, prominent trade deals with Saudi Arabia are a disaster for our national self-interest. The Middle East is undergoing a period of significant change. Britain would be best served by helping those trying to democratise the region, rather than supplying arms to those arresting them. When the dust settles on the Arab Spring, it will have been wiser to have been a leader than a schemer. A new democratic region will be more stable, more secure, and more willing to stop the funding of terrorism. They will remember that Britain continued to fund their tyrants while speaking out the other side of its mouth about human rights.

Cameron's trip to the Middle East betrays our troops, victims of terrorism and the people brave enough to fight for democracy rather than just wax lyrical about it.

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