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Don’t be surprised that Theresa May is visiting Bahrain – after Brexit, we’re in a Faustian pact over human rights abuse

You don’t get to be the world’s second biggest arms exporter by being picky about who you sell arms to

Matthew Norman
Tuesday 06 December 2016 16:32 GMT
Theresa May with Prince Salman bin Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, the Crown Prince of Bahrain
Theresa May with Prince Salman bin Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, the Crown Prince of Bahrain (Getty)

In the bleak midwinter, who would begrudge a weary Prime Minister the chance to stock up on the Vitamin D on a battery-recharging mini-break to the sun-kissed Persian Gulf?

Bidding brief farewell to the drudgery of PMQs and that catfight in the Supreme Court, Theresa May has nipped off to Bahrain for a bit of harmless fun with her hosts and King Salman of Saudi Arabia.

Officially, May will be doing some light finger-wagging at the Bahrainis over human rights, one of those western fads which is as stubbornly slow to catch on in that country as elsewhere in the region. “I think the UK has always had the position, and we continue to have the position,” she says, “that where there are issues raised about human rights … we will rightly raise those.”

Using my trusty Disingenuous Blethering-English Dictionary, I am able translate that as follows: “Look, mate, we all know these people are brutes, and as a churchgoing vicar’s daughter I really wish I could tell them so. But if you think I’d offend them, when the post-Brexit economy heavily depends on ingratiating ourselves with these oil-rich horrors, you’re a child without a clue how this wicked world works.”

With Saudi Arabia, Britain’s relationship is even more enchanting. The Saudis continue to lead the Arab coalition, including Bahrain, that has caused the deaths of many civilians and the displacement of untold more, and left millions at the mercy of disease and famine in Yemen. It has also gifted Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), a particularly pernicious offshoot of the late Osama Bin Laden’s popular franchise, control over a large stretch of land.

Who’d have thought foreign interference in civil warfare might be vulnerable to the law of unintended consequences?

Britain’s covert involvement in this so-called “forgotten war” showcases the familiar cocktail of blatant immorality, narrow self-interest, blithe deceitfulness and stomach-churning hypocrisy which earned us the epithet “perfidous Albion” centuries ago.

Having continued to sell the Saudis weapons after the war in Yemen began – in contravention of its own directives about refusing export licences when there is a clear risk of humanitarian abuse – Britain has joined the US in helping target the Houthi rebels who control the ancient Yemeni captial of Sanaa.

The list of Saudi war crimes is long and well-chronicled, and our government’s role has been to do whatever it can to keep them as hidden as possible. When the Dutch demanded an independent investigation into these crimes, Britain blocked it.

On the eve of today’s pow-wow with the Saudi King Salman, May trotted out the talking points memo with practised ease. “If any allegations are raised about breaches of international humanitarian law,” she parroted, raising a doubt about whether she comprehends what the word “if” means, “we’re very clear those should be properly investigated and … that any lessons are learned from those investigations.”

As for her favourite human punchline, Boris Johnson, the Foreign Secretary, told Andrew Marr on Sunday that “so far, we do not believe that there has been a clear risk of a breach of the international humanitarian law. At the moment, we do not think the threshold has been crossed.”

According to a report, Boris is upset about being the butt of jokes from May and the Chancellor Philip Hammond. Fair enough. Boris has never liked that kind of teasing, which is why he has always refused to appear on satirical shows like Have I Got News For You. But if he wants to avoid being ridiculed, he needs to do better than that quote, perhaps by spelling out what he would regard as the threshold-crosser if the slaughter of hundreds of innocents at weddings and funerals by Saudi war planes doesn’t quite make the grade.

Theresa May unveils latest Brexit soundbite

In a previous declaration on the matter, Boris eloquently made the moral case by pointing out that if we don’t sell the Saudis weapons, other countries “would happily” take up the slack. As if we do it miserably.

An opposition MP describes May’s jaunt to Bahrain as “the shabby face of Brexit”. This is true, but too limited. It is the disgusting face of arms-dealing. Only a laureate of faux naivete could pretend to be shocked.

You don’t get to be the world’s second biggest arms exporter by being picky about who you sell arms to. The flogging of instruments of death and repression to unpleasant regimes is an old, old story retold by each generation, like a mystery play in which only the detail changes.

The main detail changing here is that Brexit makes it even more tempting for the Government to condone human rights and humanitarian abuses, and easier to kid itself that the Faustian pacts with the despots of Araby are realpolitik imperatives rather than moral outrages. But that is a pretty minor detail. The selling of Britain’s soul to petrodollar tyrants goes back to a time long before football stadiums were called Emirates and the ruler of Qatar sat proudly beside the Queen in her Royal Ascot carriage.

Now, as forever in geopolitical relations, money rules. Post-Brexit, it is an even more absolute ruler than it was.

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