Vidya Ram

Chinks in Europe’s liberal armour

Vidya Ram | Updated on October 26, 2018

Rising anger Demonstrators on a double-decker bus protesting the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, war in Yemen and UK arms sales to Saudi Arabia in London   -  REUTERS

Britain and the EU nations’ weak-kneed response to the Khashoggi murder reveals the triumph of realpolitik

Earlier this week France, Germany and the UK issued a joint statement condemning in the “strongest possible terms” the violent killing of Jamal Khashoggi, the US-resident Saudi journalist who was a columnist for the Washington Post, within the premises of the Saudi embassy in Istanbul.

“Defending freedom of expression and a free press are key priorities for Germany, the United Kingdom and France…the threatening, attacking or killing of journalists, under any circumstances, is unacceptable and of utmost concern to our three nations,” they said as they sought urgent clarification from the Saudi authorities. Their relations with Saudi Arabia were predicated on the respect for shared norms and values that all sides were jointly committed to, they warned.

Within a day, Germany had taken things even further, announcing that it was stopping arms exports to Saudi Arabia while questions over Khashoggi’s death remained and called for other European nations to follow its lead.

The decision by Germany has put the spotlight on European nations that have long sought to portray themselves as defenders of liberal values and human rights, but whose record particularly when it comes to arm sales and dealings with countries with dire human rights records has left it open to accusations of hypocrisy.

Spain has faced criticism in recent weeks after backtracking on its announcement in early September — before the killing of Khashoggi — that it would stop selling arms to Saudi Arabia over concerns about the treatment of civilians in Yemen and in particular the killing of 40 children on a school bus in a Saudi bombing raid. Instead, in mid-September, just days after its initial proclamation, the Spanish government confirmed that the sale of 400 laser-guided bombs would indeed go ahead, to the anger of human rights groups, who accused it of succumbing to pressure.

The eagerness of European governments to engage with Saudi authorities has long faced questions domestically: in March hundreds of protesters gathered near Downing Street to protest the visit of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, during which trip the two nations released a joint communique on plans to develop a “deeper and more strategic’ partnership.

Even after the school bus bombing, the British government shrugged off calls to halt arms sales, with Minister for the Middle East Alistair Burt insisting that while Britain took licensing decisions very seriously and constantly reviewed them there was no “political justification” to withdraw arm sales to Saudi Arabia.

On Wednesday, UK Prime Minister Theresa May rejected calls for Britain to review arms sales, pointing to a 2017 High Court ruling that Britain’s sales to Saudi Arabia were compliant with regulations introduced in 2000. The measures Britain had already taken — Trade Minister Liam Fox not participating in the Saudi investment summit this week and the revocation of visas of suspects involved in the journalist’s killing — were sufficient, she insisted.

Pressure from Brussels — including a 2016 non-binding resolution from the European Parliament calling for a union-wide arms embargo against Saudi Arabia — has also had limited impact on the decisions of individual nations, who continue to be among Saudi Arabia’s biggest partners when it comes to arms sales, though with some restrictions.

Arms export

Britain is among the biggest arms exporters to Saudi Arabia: a recent paper by King’s College London (figures on sales are notoriously difficult to gauge) estimated the figure to be around £6 billion since March 2015, with £30 million revenue for the Treasury. Others have introduced limited restrictions: such as the Netherlands where arms transfers are denied approval if there is a risk of the goods being used in Yemen (Sweden has a similar approach).

In addition to economic arguments, countries have traditionally pointed to the security relationship with Saudi Arabia being key to counter-terrorism strategies: in August British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt told the BBC the relationship stopped “bombs going off on the streets of Britain”.

In the face of unwillingness by European regimes to fundamentally change their stance on arms exports to Saudi Arabia and other countries, activists have regularly resorted to the courts. In April the group Campaign Against Arms Trade was granted permission to appeal against the 2017 High Court Ruling, which it argued constituted a breach of Britain’s export licensing criteria. Earlier this year, over in Belgium an administrative court suspended a number of licenses for arms exports to Saudi Arabia citing human rights considerations.

Many have noted the marked contrast between Europe’s relatively meek stance against Saudi Arabia following the Khashoggi murder and atrocities in Yemen to other international events, such as the speed with which condemnation were directed towards Russia following the poisoning of the former spy on UK soil.

Britain’s Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt cautiously said that the Saudi defence of the Khashoggi killing (that it was a rogue operation) did not amount to a “credible explanation.”. Writing in The Guardian last week Labour’s spokesperson on international matters Emily Thornberry urged the need for Britain to apply the same standards to Saudi Arabia, as it did to Iran and Russia. Britain’s relationship with Saudi Arabia has long faced criticism — in 2008, a UK court ruled the British government (of Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair) had broken the law when it ended an investigation into fraud in a multi-billion pound arms deal with Saudi Arabia, with judges accusing the government of giving into threats from Saudi authorities.

‘Trade first’ approach

However, in Britain in particular the light-touch approach to Saudi Arabia has exacerbated fears that in its eagerness to forge post-Brexit trade deals it would increasingly put trade and investment decisions ahead of ethical considerations.

“The UK-Saudi Arabia relationship is a microcosm of all the difficult choices the UK is going to have to make once it has left the EU,” a recent paper by two academics at King’s College London warned. “There is a contradiction between the UK presenting itself as a progressive, liberal country and defender of the international rules-based order while at the same time providing diplomatic cover for a regime, which, based on our analysis, is undermining that rules based order.”

The sad irony is that, as the authors of the report noted, the notion of economic gain — and ability for the UK to exert influence on the Saudi regime — is overstated. In addition to the dropped inquiry during the Blair years, British media recently highlighted the sizeable sums spent by Saudi Arabia on trips by British MPs to the country.

In addition, while around 48 per cent of British arms exports go to Saudi Arabia, total exports to Saudi Arabia accounted for just 1 per cent of UK exports and 0.004 per cent of UK Treasury revenues, according to the KCL report.

With public opinion increasingly wary of the relationship Britain and Europe’s justifications for maintaining the status quo on Saudi Arabia appear more and more on wobbly ground.

Published on October 26, 2018

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