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The “O” Word: What’s Missing from Media Discourse on UK-Saudi Relations Printer friendly page Print This
By T.J. Coles, Plymouth Institute for Peace Research
Submitted by Author
Saturday, Jan 16, 2016

Amnesty International’s recent report, The ‘Arab Spring’: Five Years On, lists a number of countries in which mass, popular uprisings largely failed to bring freedom and democracy because they encountered greater state-violence. The examples are Tunisia (the sole “relative “success story””), Bahrain, Egypt, Libya, Syria, and Yemen. [1]

Notably, there is at least one major Middle Eastern state missing from the list: Saudi Arabia. Britain’s Telegraph newspaper reported at the time: “Desperate to avoid mass uprisings against the House of Saud, security forces have deployed in huge numbers across the region.” The report refers to 10,000 Saudi troops who simply overwhelmed the comparatively small number of pro-democracy protestors. The Observer reported: “[military training] courses are organised through the British Military Mission to the Saudi Arabian National Guard, an obscure unit that consists of 11 British army personnel under the command of a brigadier.” [2]

The training has continued since at least the 1960s, and involves sniper training. This is separate from other training programmes provided by the UK, including fighter-pilot training.

Saudi Arabia’s recent execution of Shias has sparked outrage among rights groups, prompting the Cameron government to make a statement. Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, Tobias Ellwood, said: “The Gulf is critical to our foreign policy objectives of security, prosperity and support for UK nationals overseas.” Security refers to oil. Prosperity refers to oil. Support for UK nationals refers to oil. [3]

An earlier, post-Arab Spring statement on British-Saudi relations refers to “the discovery of oil in the 1930s and 40s” and that “[t]he current UK-Saudi relationship is based on these historical ties.” It concludes: “With enormous oil wealth, Saudi Arabia is also a source of investment into the UK. It has an estimated £62 billion invested in the UK economy.” [4]

A year after the report, two things happened: 1) the media started paying attention to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (Daesh) and 2) Human Rights Watch issued a statement subtitled, “19 Beheaded in 17 Days.” The HRW report refers to execution in Saudi Arabia and noted a rise in executions by crucifixion and beheadings for such heinous crimes as apostasy, homosexuality, and witchcraft. Media attention focused on Daesh and less on its ideological and likely financial sponsor, Saudi Arabia. [5]

In addition to Anglo-American-Saudi war crimes in Yemen (a UN investigation into which was blocked by Britain and America), Campaign Against the Arms Trade (CAAT) condemned the regime’s “plans to execute a young man for protesting against its oppressive regime when he was just 17 years old,” referring to Ali Mohammed al-Nimr, who was sentenced to crucifixion and beheading, like thousands before him, for protesting the monarchy. [6]

In response to international public condemnation, the UK Saudi Embassy stated that it “rejects any form of international interference in its internal affairs,” not counting Britain’s training of its police and military services, which forced al-Nimr to sign a confession under torture. David Cameron’s response to beheadings and crucifixions by Daesh was to bomb their locations in Iraq and Syria. His response to al-Nimr’s fate was: “I’ll look to see if there’s an opportunity to raise this [issue with the Saudi government].” [7]
Following reports (denied by the Saudi regime) that a 74-year-old British expatriate, Karl Andree, faced 360 lashes for alcohol possession, Justice Secretary Michael Gove announced the cancellation of UK-Saudi prison contracts worth £5.6 million, much to the alleged anger of Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond, who “warned that cancelling it would not be in the national interest as it would make Britain appear an untrustworthy ally - and No 10 had sided with [Hammond],” the BBC reports. [8]

“National interest” is code for oil, as is “national security”—the reason cited by Cameron for not intervening in al-Nimr’s case. By denying any knowledge of the lashings allegation, the tacit agreement appears to be that Saudis will be lenient with British subjects (Andree) and in response Britain will not intervene to stop the Saudi regime’s internal abuses (al-Nimr). The BBC concludes that “[t]he Saudis are unlikely to be troubled by the cancellation” of the prison contracts because the amount of money involved is “nothing compared to the multi-billion dollar arms and oil deals regularly concluded with international partners.” “International partners” is code for Britain. [9]

The article mentions France’s “£7bn deal with Saudi Arabia” but says nothing about Britain’s £43 billion Al-Yamamah contract, negotiated under the Thatcher government. Thatcher gave the Saudi monarchy her assurances that “British press reporting on Saudi Arabia will not be allowed to influence our bilateral relations.” Tony Blair blocked a Serious Fraud Office investigation into alleged Al-Yamamah bribes by British companies. [10]
CAAT comments that in September 2015, “the UK government saw no problem with inviting the Saudis to shop for weapons at DSEI [Defence and Security Equipment International],” the annual arms fair in London, which describes itself as “the world-leading defence and security event.” A DSEI press release enthuses that the organisation “has attracted an unprecedented level of UK Government support involving the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills; Foreign & Commonwealth Office: Home Office and the Ministry of Defence.” [11]

Continuing public pressure and green energy alternatives are needed more than ever.


[1] Amnesty International, January, 2016

[2] Telegraph, 5 March, 2011 and Jamie Doward and Phillipa Stewart, Observer, 28 May, 2011

[3] Tobias Ellwood, “Saudi Arabia,” Parliament, 5 January, 2016

[4] Foreign Affair Committee, 2013, “Bilateral relations with Saudi Arabia”, The UK’s relations with Saudi Arabia and Bahrain - Foreign Affairs Committee

[5] Human Rights Watch, “Saudi Arabia: Surge in Executions”, 21 August, 2014

[6] Tom Barns, “Arms deliveries blocked!,” CAAT, September, 2015 and Trevor Timm, “The Yemen crisis is partly our fault. We can no longer facilitate this war,” Guardian, 5 October, 2015

[7] Channel 4 News, “David Cameron on Ali Mohammed al-Nimr and Saudi Arabia,” 6 October, 2015, and Gianluca Mezzofiore, “Ali Mohammed al-Nimr crucifixion: Defiant Saudi Arabia rejects international ‘interference’ in protester’s  crucifixion,” International Business Times, 7 October, 2015,  

[8] Frank Gardner, “UK pulls out of £5.9m Saudi jail deal,” BBC News Online, 13 October, 2015,  

[9] Ibid.

[10] Richard Norton-Taylor and Rob Evans, ‘Margaret Thatcher’s lobbying of Saudi royals over arms deal revealed’, Guardian, 16 July, 2015,

[11] DSEI, ‘Record ministerial support for DSEI’, September, 2015, and Barns, op cit.

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