UK 'targeting Saudi Arabia for contracts'

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The UK government's controversial relationship with Saudi Arabia came under renewed scrutiny on Saturday after it emerged government departments were escalating efforts to win lucrative public contracts in the country. 

In documents obtained by the Observer, the government encouraged British companies to bid for contracts in health, security, defence and justice. The documents also identify the autocratic kingdom as a "priority market" for business. 

The gulf state -- which observes sharia law -- makes routine use of crucifixion, beheadings and public flogging. Amnesty International says the country executed 175 people over the last year. Crimes punishable by death under Saudi's penal system include adultery. 

Maya Foa, director of Reprieve's death penalty team, told the Observer: "It's becoming increasingly clear that ministers are bent on ever close ties with the world's most notorious human rights abuser... ministers must urgently come clean about the true extent of our agreements with Saudi Arabia and other repressive regimes."

Earlier this week the government cancelled a contract with the kingdom worth £5.9m that would have seen the Ministry of Justice provide the country with prison services. The Times reported that Michael Gove, the recently appointed Justice Secretary, wanted to scrap the contract for some time, but was blocked by doing so. 

The Foreign Office in particular was said to be worried that cancelling such a contract would have wider diplomatic ramifications for Britain's relationship with the country.

Announcing the decision to drop the bid, the Prime Minister's official spokeswoman said: "This bid to provide the additional training to Saudi Arabia has been reviewed and the government has decided that it won't be proceeding with the bid. The review has been on-going following the decision that was announced earlier in September to close down the Just Solutions International branch of the Ministry of Justice that was providing some of these services.

"We will continue to engage and work with the Saudis on human rights issues, political reform and will continue to raise concerns where we have them.

The country is also facing questions over the well-being of 74-year-old British citizen, Karl Andree. Andree has been sentenced to 350 lashes as part of a punishment imposed after bottles of homemade wine were reportedly found in his possession. His family have said Andree is already weak as a result of cancer and fear the public flogging will kill him.

Human rights groups are also concerned over the sale of arms and security services to the regime. According to research conducted by Campaign Against Arms Trade, the UK has licensed £4bn of arms sales to Saudi Arabia since the Conservatives came to power in 2010.

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