David Cameron urged to reassess UK ties with Saudi Arabia as he maintains 'shameful' silence over executions

The relationship between the UK and the Gulf kingdom has come under sustained criticism in recent months

David Cameron has been urged to end his “shameful” silence over the mass execution of 47 prisoners by Saudi Arabia and order a permanent reassessment of the UK’s close relationship with the Gulf kingdom, amid fears that the killings could spark a wider conflict which will threaten the West.

As international outrage grew over Saudi Arabia’s organised executions of dozens of prisoners, Lord Ashdown told The Independent that a broadening confrontation between Sunni and Shia Muslim states would pose “a far greater danger” to the West than the threat carried by terrorist groups such as Isis.

The close relationship between the UK and Saudi Arabia has come under sustained criticism in recent months following a string of human rights abuses in the conservative kingdom. In a sign of growing unease among MPs, Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron will call on Monday for a full parliamentary debate on the issue. 

Labour and the SNP have also called on the Government to review its relationship with Saudi Arabia, raising a series of concerns about the UK’s continued arms sales to the kingdom and offer of support for its judicial system.

Speaking to The Independent, Lord Ashdown said Saudi Arabia’s sudden mass execution of prisoners – including the prominent Shia cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr and a number of young political protesters – may have been intended to derail the ongoing Syrian peace talks in Vienna.

“These executions are deeply, deeply destabilising to the very delicate situation that exists in the Middle East and the danger of a wider Sunni and Shia conflict. The West, including the UK government, is only just realising the danger of this and its implications for long term peace in the region. It poses a far greater danger in the long term than, for example, Isil,” the former Lib Dem leader added.

Protesters at the Saudi embassy in Tehran

“The UK Government should be making it explicitly clear that it regards this act as extremely destabilising. These executions are shocking in human rights terms and reveal the real nature of the people with whom we are dealing. The UK’s stance underlines its deeply illogical position of ignoring the funding of jihadist groups, including Isil, which is coming from within Saudi Arabia.”

Philip Hammond, the Foreign Secretary, said last month that the UK was pursuing a policy of “quiet and continued engagement behind the scenes” with countries such as Saudi Arabia. Human rights campaigners said the executions proved this approach was not working.

Reprieve described Britain’s criticism of Saudi Arabia’s human rights record as “muted at best”, calling for the Government to “seriously reconsider” its support for the kingdom, while Amnesty UK said ministers had only “whispered criticism” and must be “firmer and louder” in their condemnation.

The prominent human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell added: “David Cameron’s silence over Saudi Arabia’s mass executions is shameful. It is collusion with barbarism, which does huge damage to Britain’s international reputation. How can the UK be taken seriously if we condemn human rights abuses by Iran and Russia but not by Saudi Arabia? 

“The Prime Minister is guilty of double standards. He condemns Isis but panders to Saudi Arabia. Both are driven by a similar extreme Islamist ideology and both practice the same bloodthirsty beheadings. Moral consistency requires that we oppose them both.”

The executions have also intensified political pressure on the Government to allow greater scrutiny of its relations with Saudi Arabia. As he called for a parliamentary debate on the issue, Mr Farron said ministers must “come clean” over allegations that Saudi Arabia’s election to the UN Human Rights Council in 2013 was ensured thanks to a vote-trading deal with the UK. 

“If the Government did support the Saudi bid it would show once and for all that [they] put profit above fundamental human rights,” he told The Independent. “It is time the Prime Minister comes clean…it would make an utter mockery of the values we hold dear if they did support them.”

Labour, meanwhile, raised concerns over the UK’s role in the Saudi justice system which allowed the executions. Although the Justice Secretary Michael Gove cancelled a £6 million bid for a prisons contract last year, the party said “judicial cooperation” was continuing through the British Embassy in Riyadh. 

“It is not right that the UK should be actively cooperating with a justice system that shows such flagrant disregard for the most basic human rights and the rule of law,” said Andy Slaughter, Labour’s shadow Human Rights Minister.

The SNP’s Margaret Ferrier also accused the Government of turning a “blind eye” to Saudi Arabia’s “horrific” human rights record while continuing to sell the kingdom “billions of pounds worth of weapons”.

However, former Lib Dem leader Lord (Menzies) Campbell said that he believed the Government’s current approach to Saudi Arabia was correct. “The Saudi Arabian government is well aware of UK opposition to capital punishment as indeed are the Iranians who also practise it. There is no reason why we should not repeat that opposition as often as is necessary to do so,” he said.

“But in the urgent objective of achieving stability in the Middle East both Saudi Arabia and Iran will have vital roles to play. Alienating ourselves from either of these countries is not in our interests nor helpful to the long-term aim of political settlement in the region.”

Tobias Ellwood, Minister for the Middle East, said: “I am deeply disturbed by the escalation in tensions in the last 24 hours in the Middle East.

“The UK is firmly opposed to the death penalty. We have stressed this to the Saudi authorities and also expressed our disappointment at the mass executions.

“We have discussed with the authorities in Riyadh, and expect that Ali Al-Nimr and others who were convicted as juveniles will not be executed. The UK will continue to raise these cases with the Saudi authorities.

“We are deeply concerned to hear of the attack yesterday on the Saudi Embassy in Tehran. It is essential that diplomatic missions are properly protected and respected.

“There are those who will wish to exploit the situation and raise sectarian tensions higher. This would be against the wishes of the vast majority of those in the region. I urge all parties in the region to show restraint and responsibility.”