UK should work with Saudi Arabia 'privately' rather than criticise 'from the sidelines', says Foreign Office minister

Tobias Ellwood tells House of Commons relationship with the kingdom is 'critical' to Britain's foreign policy objectives

A Foreign Office minister claimed tonight that it was better to work with Saudi Arabia “privately” to encourage reform rather than criticise the kingdom’s human rights record “from the sidelines”.

Tobias Ellwood told the House of Commons that Britain’s relationship with Saudi Arabia was “one of the most enduring in the world” and “critical” to the UK’s foreign policy objectives. 

And he said that while he had raised the mass execution of 47 prisoners with the regime, such acts reflected the “widely held conservative social values” in the kingdom.

Mr Ellwood’s comments came after The Independent revealed that the UK Government left Saudi Arabia off a list of 30 countries to be challenged over their continued use of the death penalty – despite executing more than 90 people a year.

The minister claimed the document containing the list was “a general policy guide rather than a case-by-case list of countries where the death penalty is employed” and said it did not reflect a lack of concern over human rights. 

But a former senior Foreign Office figure who was involved in producing the document told The Independent that Saudi Arabia had been given an “easier ride” because of the importance of Britain’s economic and political relationship with the country.

“To be honest it was a bit of a tick-box exercise and I think some realpolitik came into it. While we put pressure on countries in the Caribbean to abandon the death penalty when it comes to Saudi no one makes too much of an effort.”

The individual who asked not to be named because of his continuing relationship with the Foreign Office said he was not surprised when he heard the Mr Ellwood say the Government was “disappointed” by the recent executions. “The problem is that taking a firm line with the Saudis on this conflicts with our other strategic objectives. It was a necessarily lacklustre response.”

The Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron said that for Mr Ellwood to describe the 47 executions as ‘disappointing’ was “the grossest of understatements”. The shadow Foreign Secretary, Hilary Benn, said the executions had caused a “major political and diplomatic crisis”.

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