Editorial: Time to call Saudi Arabia's bluff

Monday 15 October 2012 19:37
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Saudi Arabia has made known that it is "insulted" by the recent decision of the UK Parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee to review British relations with it and with Bahrain. And by choosing Frank Gardner, the BBC security correspondent, as its intermediary, it ensured more publicity for its hurt feelings than it truly deserved.

What MPs decide to investigate at their committees is nothing whatever to do with anyone except the UK Parliament and the people it serves. Indeed, you could argue that the more anyone – including a foreign country – huffs and puffs about the impertinence of such attention, the more justified it is likely to be. So it is with this review. MPs might even be said to have come a bit late to a subject that has warranted a closer look for quite a while.

The subservience that successive UK governments have shown towards the rulers of this desert kingdom is unworthy of a country that defends the primacy of democracy and human rights. The Arab Spring only pointed up the anomalies. Even as crowds across the region claimed the freedoms we laud and British politicians posed for pictures in Cairo's Tahrir Square, Bahrain's rulers were cracking down on protesters, ably assisted by newly arrived Saudi troops. The official British response was more supine than embarrassed.

The reasons are not hard to divine. Bahrain hosts a major US naval base. Trade between Saudi Arabia and Britain is worth £4bn a year. There are relations of long standing between our respective royal families. The notion that such arrangements might be – or could soon become – outdated, given the winds of political change blowing across the region, seems not to have registered in Britain's corridors of power – at least not that anyone was prepared to admit in public.

Yet there must be questions about how far the present situation reflects either the British national interest or the interests of the majority in Saudi Arabia or Bahrain. When the Saudis equate, as they appear to do, their own intervention in Bahrain with the UK's recovery of the Falklands, there is clearly a gulf of comprehension. And when they also seek to influence British policy towards third countries, specifically Iran, by blaming Tehran for the unrest in Bahrain, even though British experts found no evidence, then it is high time to give this relationship a closer look. Far from shelving their review, MPs need to speed it up, keep the national interest in its sights, and ensure that their final report pulls no punches.

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