UK government accused of phoning Saudi Arabia to apologise after imposing human rights sanctions

Saudi Arabian media reports that UK defence minister called to praise government’s work

Jon Stone
Policy Correspondent
Thursday 09 July 2020 19:11 BST
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A poster in Riyadh of Prince Mohammed bin Salman (left) and King Salman bin Abdulaziz
A poster in Riyadh of Prince Mohammed bin Salman (left) and King Salman bin Abdulaziz

The UK government privately showered Saudi Arabia’s government with praise a day after publicly criticising its human rights abuses and targeting it for sanctions, The Independent has learned.

The government was accused of “calling to apologise” to the regime after some Saudi individuals were included on the foreign secretary’s new “Magnitsky Act” sanctions list on Monday.

Defence minister Ben Wallace is understood to have discreetly telephoned his Saudi counterpart on Wednesday to reiterate the UK’s support for the regime and its work.

The call was not publicised by the British government in the UK, but Saudi Arabia’s state-run news agency used the opportunity to boast about it in a press statement issued on Wednesday.

“His Royal Highness Prince Khalid bin Salman bin Abdulaziz, Deputy Minister of Defense, received yesterday a phone call from His Excellency British Defence Secretary [sic], Mr Ben Wallace, during which the partnership between the two countries was discussed, especially in the defence field, and the efforts made by the two countries to enhance regional and international security,” according to a statement on the Saudi Press Agency.

Saudi Arabian media reports that the minister “expressed his country’s appreciation for Saudi Arabia’s role in addressing threats to stability in the region”, adding: “He also affirmed the country’s government’s keenness to strengthen defence relations between the two friendly countries, especially in the field of military exports to the Kingdom.”

The call comes as Liz Truss, the international trade secretary, announced the lifting of a ban on British arms exports to the oil-rich country. A review of the sales launched by Ms Truss on the orders of a court found “possible” war crimes were being committed by Saudi Arabian forces in Yemen but said they were likely “isolated incidents” because they had all happened in different places and different ways.

Layla Moran, a candidate in the ongoing Liberal Democrat leadership contest, told The Independent: “It looks like the UK government took action against Saudi individuals one day, then called to apologise privately the next.

“This sends completely the wrong message to nations and individuals involved in human rights abuses around the world.

“The government needs to decide once and for all what kind of global nation they intend the UK to be: a global champion of liberal values or an apologist for human rights abusers.”

Twenty Saudi nationals were targeted for sanctions in the measures unveiled on Monday, in addition to individuals from Russia, Myanmar and North Korea.

The comments reported in the phone call contrast with Dominic Raab’s rhetoric in parliament earlier in the week.

Addressing the House of Commons, the foreign secretary, said: “Those with blood on their hands won’t be free … to waltz into this country, to buy up property on the Kings Road, do their Christmas shopping in Knightsbridge, or siphon dirty money through British banks.

“You cannot set foot in this country, and we will seize your blood-drenched ill-gotten gains if you try.”

Concerns around Saudi Arabia’s policies include its military’s conduct in Yemen, its domestic human rights situation, and the alleged murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018.

A Ministry of Defence spokesperson said: “This week the Defence Secretary spoke to his Saudi Arabian counterpart to discuss wider regional security and export licenses. The Government takes its exports responsibilities seriously.”

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