Why do British governments grovel to the Saudi royal family? Is it because of our “shared values”, as the New Labour minister Kim Howells famously put it, or is it because they stand shoulder to shoulder with Britain and the United States in the Great War on Terror as various senior Tories continually insist?
Obviously neither of these claims is true. The real reason is shown quite dramatically by British arms sales to the Saudis. Over a three-month period towards the end of last year British arms sales grew from £9 million to more than £1 billion.
Britain provided much of the hardware for the Saudis’ murderous assault on Yemen. And not content with just supplying the weaponry, British military personnel have been quietly deployed to assist and advise the Saudis in this conflict. The hypocrisy of the British complaining about Russian bombing in Syria while at the very same time facilitating and assisting Saudi bombing in Yemen is positively breathtaking. Why do they do it? Profit!
The British relationship with the Saudis goes back to the First World War when Britain and France carved the Middle East up between them. Although not an outright puppet, the first Saudi monarch, Ibn Saud, had to court the British. He had consolidated his kingdom through the efforts of a society of Wahhabi warriors, the Ikhwan, in many ways the forerunners of ISIS, but in the post-war period they became an embarrassment. They objected to the royal family’s increasing extravagance, paying lip service to Islamic puritanism, but privately enjoying the spoils of power. And they still continued to carry out raids against heretics and non-believers involving mass beheadings and wholesale enslavement. Under British pressure and with British military assistance, he crushed them in 1929.
The Saudi royal family still continued to endorse a fierce Wahhabi puritanism domestically, while at the same time becoming a byword for the most obscene extravagance and wholesale corruption, a situation that still obtains today.
The discovery of oil in commercial quantities in the 1930s transformed Ibn Saud’s relationship with the British. Indeed, with British power in the Middle East in decline during the Second World War, he transferred his allegiance to the United States. In 1944 Roosevelt told Lord Halifax, the British ambassador to Washington, that Britain could keep Iraq and its oil, but would have to share Iranian oil fifty-fifty with the US, and Saudi oil belonged to the US alone. Over the next few years the Americans squeezed the British out altogether.
Even with Saudi Arabia becoming an American client, the British were still determined to profit from the country’s oil wealth. One of the great advantages of the so-called “special relationship” with the US was that it facilitated such efforts. The British, under both Labour and the Tories, routinely sold arms to the Saudis, but In the 1980s the Thatcher government was instrumental in securing the al-Yamamah deal, a massive rolling arms deal worth billions of pounds. This deal was inevitably accompanied by wholesale bribery and corruption with one Tory minister, Jonathan Aitken, being accused by the Guardian of providing prostitutes for a visiting Saudi delegation.
Investigations into the corruption surrounding this deal continued until the Blair government had them closed down at the end of 2006. Blair’s justification for this was the importance of Britain’s alliance with the Saudis in the War on Terror. This was, of course, a lie. Once again the real reason was profit.
The pursuit of profit has led the British establishment into the most astonishing and embarrassing grovelling before the Saudi royals. When King Abdullah died in 2015 flags on government buildings in Britain were flown at half-mast as a mark of respect for this reactionary absolute monarch who presided over a brutal, corrupt, misogynistic regime where men and women were routinely imprisoned, flogged and even executed for demanding basic human rights. Cameron justified this on the grounds of Saudi assistance in the War on Terror. Sound familiar?
Cameron is also the proud recipient of the top honour that the Saudi royal family bestows on international statesmen, the Medal of Excellence. Only a chosen few exceptional men are so honoured: Berlusconi got it for his moral probity, Blair for his honesty, George W Bush for his intellect, but it remains a complete mystery as to why they gave it to Cameron.
More recently, the British government steadfastly refused to condemn the beheading of the Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr, one of 47 prisoners all executed on the same day. And this was despite the execution being nothing more than the judicial murder of a leading dissident in a clear attempt at derailing any US rapprochement with Iran.
And, of course, the British government played a crucial role in getting Saudi Arabia a place on the UN Human Rights Commission, something we only know about courtesy of Wikileaks.
The British establishment grovelling to the Saudi royal family would be merely comical, if it were not costing lives. British bombs and missiles are being used in Yemen to attack hospitals and to kill civilians.
Profit is being put before everything else. The Cameron government has to be called to account.