Magazine article The Spectator

Leading Article: Our Saudi Alliance

Magazine article The Spectator

Leading Article: Our Saudi Alliance

Article excerpt

It would be hard to dream up a more absurd piece of political satire than an agency of the British government called Just Solutions International winning a contract to train prison officers in a country that has executed 175 people in the past year, many of them in public beheadings for offences such as sorcery, witchcraft, adultery and political activism. That it sought this contract in the first place is a sign of the great void at the heart of our foreign policy.

This week, the Justice Secretary, Michael Gove, pulled out of the deal with Saudi Arabia -- thereby attracting the ire of the Foreign Secretary, Philip Hammond, who called him 'naive' for doing so. That is a word better applied to Mr Hammond. A Saudi Supreme Court ruling dating from February decrees that judges may pass down the death sentence even if an offence has not been proved beyond reasonable doubt. How could Hammond lecture other countries on human rights if Britain were to collude with this medieval penal system?

Saudi Arabia is no friend of Britain. The country not only encourages but exports the Islamic extremism we are having to confront at home and abroad. That said, no government can divorce itself from history, and our policy in the region must be based on a hard-headed assessment of the available options. Although Michael Gove is quite right to refuse to co-operate with the Saudi penal system, it is equally right that the government should continue to co-operate with the country because of our mutual defence interests. The country may not be a friend of Britain's, but it is an ally. For all its faults, Saudi Arabia is not an aggressive, expansionist nation. Surrounded by more belligerent regimes, it is an important counterbalance against the growing aggression of Iran.

Charles Moore, in the second volume of his superb biography of Margaret Thatcher, describes how keen Thatcher was to sell aircraft to the Saudi air force. This makes sense: arms sales are the iron of diplomacy, and nations ought to co-operate with their allies. The Saudis would not use RAF Tornados to oppress their own people -- they have the justice system for that. This is where we should draw the line: if they are going to behead Shiite protesters, they do not need to do so with British steel.

An absolutist moral stance on foreign policy is impossible to achieve, as the late Robin Cook quickly discovered with his disastrous 'ethical foreign policy'. When a dictator declares war on his own people, is the moral response to invade, remove him and try to rebuild the state as a democracy; to arm and assist rebels who are seeking to overthrow him; or to keep out of it altogether? …

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