Should we cut ties with Saudi Arabia?
Yesterday there was a debate at Intelligence Squared in London on whether the West should cut ties with the kingdom of Saudi Arabia because of its use of torture and such crimes as the murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi in their consulate in Turkey. I could not justify the cost of a ticket (£30) but Hafsah Dabiri shared a couple of clips on her Instagram; they showed Mehdi Hasan talking about a young woman jailed for driving her car before the ban on women driving was lifted, then fleeing to the UAE after being release and then being kidnapped and taken back to Saudi Arabia and being imprisoned again. Other speakers included Crispin Blunt who said that Britain has levers of influence in Saudi Arabia and that cutting ties would be harmful to the cause of political reform and to regional stability, increasing the power of Russia and China, and Mamoun Fandy who said that Saudi Arabia was important to the world’s one billion Muslims and “to regional stability and order” and that cutting ties with Cuba did not work and neither will this. As the image shows, the motion was passed with 63% in favour.
As a Muslim I would really dispute that Saudi Arabia was important to Muslims. It is the home of the two holy cities, yes, but the regime does not originate in those cities but in the Najd, the central region which has never produced scholars of any note but has produced a number of schismatic movements throughout the history of Islam, from the false prophets and Kharijites of the early period to the Wahhabis of today. They are notorious for using their petro-dollars to influence Muslim affairs in other countries including supporting the Wahhabi “Salafi da’wah” which is popular with certain communities around the world, including many converts in the UK and USA. Under the current leadership, it is of even lesser importance as it returns to the repression of the King Fahd era without the religious piety.
I do not support cutting off relations with Saudi Arabia entirely; there are too many British and other western citizens living there for one reason or another and thousands perform the Hajj (pilgrimage) every year. However, we really must not treat the regime as a normal nation which has the rule of law and which respects the norms of civilised behaviour. We should not trust intelligence from them, especially about named individuals known to be dissidents as it is likely to be either ideologically biased or tainted with torture. We should restrict their diplomatic activity, and not allow them to assign diplomatic immunity to Saudis living here who are involved with religious foundations (e.g. the Regent’s Park mosque) or anything not strictly diplomatic. We should not honour such conventions as seizing passports they “report missing” (a trick governments use to stop their citizens travelling freely if they are out of favour with the regime).
I don’t really expect the UK to take an ethical foreign policy right now, especially since it is alienating its closest friends with its Brexit policy. However, under both Labour and Tory governments it has been too quick to cosy up to foreign governments whether they are legitimate or not, democratic or not, whether they are repressive or not or whether their legal systems have any semblance of efficiency or not (important when extraditing a British child involved in a custody dispute or a citizen accused of a crime). The government has, for example, confiscated Syrian passports held by dissidents on the demand of the Assad regime even when they lacked control over most of the country and had never held free and fair elections. There is a saying that if you sup with the Devil you had better use a long spoon, yet our government deals with these sorts of rulers as if it were an honour rather than a matter of necessity.
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