Boris Johnson was right to criticise Saudi Arabia – but they’re not the only ones to blame

The Foreign Secretary was even-handed in apportioning blame for a series of sectarian conflicts in the Middle East, also pointing out that Iran, the great Shia rival of the Sunni Saudis, was playing its part in orchestrating strife 

Kim Sengupta
Saturday 10 December 2016 13:34
Boris Johnson: Saudi Arabia is playing proxy wars

Stating that Saudi Arabia has been conducting proxy wars was a relatively restrained form of criticism by Boris Johnson. The kingdom has been condemned for a lot more – ranging from funding terrorism and exporting religious intolerance to running a brutal legal system with beheadings and suppressing the rights of women.

In fact the Foreign Secretary was even-handed in apportioning blame for a series of sectarian conflicts in the Middle East, also pointing out that Iran, the great Shia rival of the Sunni Saudis, was also playing its part in orchestrating strife.

This is taking place in a number of arenas at great human cost. One of the grimmest is Yemen where the war between Shia Houthi rebels backed by Iran, and the Saudi-led Sunni alliance backing the president, has claimed 12,000 lives in 18 months. The poorest country in the region is sliding into a humanitarian disaster with three million people driven from their homes and 14 million suffering from severe hunger and malnutrition.

More than a hundred hospitals and medical clinics, dozens of power stations and water plants have been hit by the more than 3,000 airstrikes carried out by the Saudi-led coalition. The weaponry for this is being supplied by the West. The UK’s share of the trade, just in the period since the bombing began in March last year, is $6.5bn. The Saudis have long been the most generous customers for British arms and one of the main reasons for the attacks Mr Johnson has faced is the fear that his remarks will damage this lucrative commerce.

Theresa May – who has just come back from a trip to the Gulf – defends the sale of arms to the Saudis. She maintains that banning it would lead to the Saudis withholding intelligence on Islamist terrorist threats – threats which, ironically, are largely the direct result of the fundamentalist Wahhabi creed propagated from Saudi Arabia. Close ties, the Prime Minister stressed in September, “keep people on the streets of Britain safe”. They do not, however, keep people in the streets of Yemen safe. Around the same time as Theresa May was making her comment, a 500lb laser-guided bomb dropped on a funeral procession in Sanaa, killed 140 people and injured 525 others.

Many will find the failure to criticise the Saudis for their proxy-wars and human rights abuse for the sake of the arms trade distasteful. The US has contracts for $115bn worth of military equipment to Saudi Arabia since the start of the current Yemen war. But that did not stop it passing a law allowing victims of the 9/11 attacks to sue the Saudi government whose officials, it has been alleged, were involved in the terrorist plot – Congress overwhelmingly rejected Obama’s veto on the bill. In September, 27 senators, including senior leaders, voted to block a sale of tanks and other weapons to the kingdom. While the measure did not pass, it was a sign of a growing concern over the Saudi “connection” to September 11 .

The British government’s position, officially, is that any criticism of the Saudis by ministers is traditionally made in private. Sir Malcolm Rifkind joined in the row to condemn Mr Johnson and suggest that he should be demoted. Sir Malcolm has, in the past, spoken of a “number of advantages” in keeping the Saudis sweet. He may have privately criticised the Saudis when he was Foreign Secretary – there is no discernible evidence that he managed to improve Saudi behaviour if he did so.

Downing Street’s public slapping down of Johnson is partly, at least, to do with inner tensions in the Tory party. The British public, on the other hand, supports the stance of the Foreign Secretary on telling some home truths publicly to the Saudis. Indeed, they would surely welcome more ministers in the government having the courage to speak out on this matter.

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