The British Government left Saudi Arabia off a list of thirty countries to be challenged by diplomats over their continued use of the death penalty - despite executing over 90 people a year.
The Kingdom is the only major death penalty state to be omitted from a 20-page Foreign Office document setting out the UK’s five-year strategy to reduce the use of executions around the world.
Among the countries given a greater priority were Barbados Singapore and Jordan that between them passed less than ten death sentences in 2014.
Human rights groups and opposition politicians have expressed concern that ministers left the notoriously sensitive Saudi regime off the list to safeguard billions of pounds of defence contracts and security co-operation.
The Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron said the time had come to “shine a light” into the “shady corners” of the UK relationship with the Saudi regime.
The Foreign Office minister Tobias Ellwood would only express the UK’s “disappointment” at the 47 executions carried out by Saudi Arabia at the end of last week.
The UK strategy, which was written in 2011, sets out what it describes as a list of “priority countries” where British diplomats would be “encouraged” to “proactively drive forward” and “make progress” towards the UK’s ultimate goal of abolishing the death penalty over five years.
It lists China, Iran, Belarus, the US and the Caribbean as the countries where most effort should be focused but goes on to list another 25 countries that have “been identified where posts should also be working towards” reducing the use of the death penalty.
But Saudi Arabia does not appear on either list despite having one of the worst human rights records in the Middle East.
Maya Foa, Director of the death penalty team at international human rights organisation Reprieve said it was a “shocking” omission.
“Saudi Arabia has consistently ranked in the world’s top five executioners, and a large proportion of beheadings carried out in the country have been for non-violent offences, including protest,” she said.
“It is shocking that the Kingdom was absent from the countries targeted by the UK’s death penalty strategy over the past five years, when every other major executioner in the world – China, Iran, Iraq, the US and Pakistan – was included.”
Amnesty International’s Head of Policy Allan Hogarth said it was “astonishing” omission.
“We’ve become increasingly alarmed that the UK government has been bending over backwards to avoid criticising Saudi Arabia’s appalling human rights record,” he said.
“Ministers are always harping on about how their ‘engaged’ relationship with Riyadh means they can talk ‘frankly’ on issues like human rights, but what do these conversations actually consist of and what have they ever achieved? Apparently very little.
“It’s time the government reviewed its approach to human rights in the Kingdom and adopted a far more robust stance.”
Tim Farron, leader of the Liberal Democrats added: “Saudi Arabia is a barbaric regime and the UK government must do more to stand up to them. The Government must not just write reports and accidentally miss them out due to worrying about diplomatic nicety, it should hold them to account.
“The Liberal Democrats have called for a debate into the UK - Saudi Arabia relations to try and shine a light into the shady corners of this relationship.”
But former foreign secretary Sir Malcolm Rifkind said that there were "a number of advantages" to Britain's relationship with Riyadh, including the provision of Saudi intelligence which had helped prevent terrorist plots.
“There are a number of circumstances where Saudi Arabia and the West have co-operated effectively on counter-terrorism,” he said.
“That has to be by far the single most important priority at this moment in time.”
David Cameron said that the UK condemned the death penalty in all circumstances and had made representations to the Saudi authorities on this occasion.
“Let me be clear - we condemn and do not support the death penalty in any circumstances and that includes Saudi Arabia,” he said.
“We always make representations on the death penalty and the Foreign Office ministers made it very clear on this occasion.”
A Saudi Justice Ministry spokesman told the BBC: “As a judicial power or judicial branch, we execute, or we apply, Sharia law according to the facts we see in front of us, irrespective of other influences, and that is what the judges are qualified on. They don't look to any other influences, they deal with the facts that they see in front of them.”
A Foreign Office spokeswoman said: “This document is a general policy guide from 2011, rather than a case by case list of countries where the death penalty is applied. A full list of countries of concerns was published in March 2015 in the Annual Human Rights Report, that includes Saudi Arabia and its use of the death penalty. The Government opposes the death penalty in all circumstances as a matter of principle and continues to raise concerns with the Saudi authorities at the highest levels.”
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