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Wednesday, October 28, 2015 

Appeasing the Saudis.

In a way, you can almost understand the apparent consternation of our good friends the Saudis at what they see as the sudden downgrading of our "strong alliance".  Following the decision to cancel a memorandum of understanding on the supply of training to Saudi prison officers, as well as adverse coverage about floggings and beheadings, they just can't be sure where it is they stand.  What's more, as voiced by the Saudi ambassador Mohammed bin Nawaf bin Abdulaziz (crazy name, crazy guy?!), this "alarming change" has come at the same time as the red carpet has been rolled out for our new best pals the Chinese.

This must be all the more confusing because China and the Saudi Arabia, while very different nations, have often shared the same diplomatic strategy.  They affect to be incredibly thin-skinned, to the point where mentioning human rights within 10 miles of their embassies is the equivalent of suggesting their collective mother wasn't just a woman of ill morals, but also inclined towards the farmyard.  David Cameron merely meeting the Dalai Lama, a man deemed a terrorist by Beijing, was enough for relations to be downgraded at a stroke.  When the Commons foreign affairs committee declared it was to hold an inquiry into a couple of Gulf states, including Saudi, the government had to an order a report into the Muslim Brotherhood and its involvement in the UK to placate them.

Xi Jinping being invited round to hobnob with Queenie, Kate and all the rest must then have been all the more bewildering.  China might not be quite as repressive as Saudi, especially for women, nor do the Chinese go in for flogging, but both are liberal when it comes to the use of capital punishment.  If there was any discussion of human rights with Xi, then precisely in what way it was it was addressed and how it was responded to we simply don't know.  Despite the BBC putting the best possible gloss on Xi's answer to the only allowed question from Laura Kuenssberg, his point was fairly clear: everyone had lessons they could learn on human rights.  From China, presumably.

There are nonetheless subtler ways of making clear your displeasure than the way bin Abdulaziz chose.  Rare is it that a supposed diplomat decides to directly channel the Krays, rarer still that a newspaper like the Telegraph would choose to publish the resulting column and present it as though it was anything other an outright attempt to intimidate.  Abdulaziz's message is, as David Allen Green has pointed out, nice country you've got here, would be a shame if anything was to happen to it.  It really is that crass, that tone deaf.  Flogging, public executions, treating women as chattel, all these things are mere local traditions and customs, and just as the Saudis respect our traditions and customs, they expect us to respect theirs.  If our extensive trade links are to be subject to "certain political ideologies", i,e. Jeremy Corbyn daring to suggest we shouldn't be training torturers or the jailers of human rights dissidents, then everything is on the table, including intelligence cooperation.  Why, David Cameron says Saudi intelligence has saved hundreds of lives, or rather according to the ambassador, "thousands".

This is hardly the first time the Saudis have threatened to withdraw intelligence cooperation.  Indeed, it's their rhetorical weapon of choice: just when the Serious Fraud Office was about to break open their probe into corruption in the Al-Yamamah weapon deal, the Saudis informed the British ambassador if the inquiry was not stopped that "British lives on British streets" would be at risk.  The message was that blunt.  To make such a threat over the potential uncovering of precisely what the Saudi royals are so often accused of is one thing; to do the same over a paltry £6m memorandum of understanding, which had not yet so much as been committed to is something else.

Such are the deep links within various government departments to the Saudis, not to mention inside the arms firms which the British state often acts as salesman extraordinaire for, it's all but impossible to know precisely where direct Saudi influence ends and the curious devotion to some of the most unpleasant people on the planet begins.  There is however clearly more than meets the eye to foreign secretary Philip Hammond's unannounced visit to Saudi Arabia than merely to announce that Karl Andree, imprisoned for over a year for the heinous offence of having homemade wine, will be released shortly.  That ever reliable conduit for the intelligence agencies, Frank Gardner, says the visit was meant to "smooth ruffled feathers", and yet it also looks remarkably like being part of an agreed stick and then carrot PR exercise, with the ambassador wielding the stick and Hammond then coming away with a prize regardless.

Perhaps the true reason for the trip is to soothe Saudi nerves over the possibility that we won't be able to carry on supplying planes, bombs and spare parts to their airforce, currently involved in reducing Yemen to rubble as part of the second on-going proxy war between the Sauds and Iran in the region.  Perhaps it was also to reassure them that Iran being invited to the talks over Syria is not about anything other than a extremely belated attempt to reach a peace settlement.  It still though highlights just how deep in the Saudi pocket government ministers are.  Very few other nations could get away with making such blatant threats, in our very own media no less, and not as a result be told where to go.

The truth is we are scared of the Saudis, just as it seems the Americans are also.  Not because they can turn off the oil taps as they once did and could, but at what potentially they could do if we finally called their bluff on their wider role in the region and in the spreading of the Wahhabi creed worldwide.  British lives on British streets, or American lives on American streets, and not merely as a result of stopping the sharing of intelligence.  The threat seems far more implicit than that, a message backed up by how regardless of their protests, it's a fact that the Saudis have been funding jihadist groups in Syria, if not necessarily either Islamic State or the al-Nusra Front.  As David Allan Green again writes, there's a name for our response to this open intimidation: appeasement.  Just don't expect those usually first in line to decry Western "weakness" to be in the vanguard on this occasion.

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