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Five years after Khashoggi's murder, why is the UK welcoming MBS?

Having fully restored its ties with Saudi Arabia, including arms sales to the kingdom, Britain abandons its purported support for democratic values for petrodollars
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ahead of a meeting with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia on 7 June 2023 (Saudi Royal Court Handout/Reuters)

Nearly five years to the day since Jamal Khashoggi's murder, which was ordered by the Saudi crown prince using a team of assassins, the UK government is preparing to roll out the red carpet in London for Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), having already restored lucrative arms sales to the Saudi government.

What the British people should be asking is whether the profits for the British defence industry are worth the national values and security for which they've been traded.

The British government's initial response to the murder of Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on 2 October 2018 was one shared pretty widely by governments throughout the world: shock, horror, and disgust.

Jeremy Hunt, UK foreign secretary at the time, demanded answers from the Saudi government, promised to treat the incident seriously, and emphasised that "friendships depend on shared values". He noted the threat that violence against journalists poses to freedom of expression and promised to "treat the incident seriously".

Less than two years later, the British government was singing a different tune, resuming close ties to the kingdom.

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Lucrative deals

While French President Emmanuel Macron may have been the first to welcome MBS to a European state dinner in 2022, the British government more quietly moved to restore arms sales to the kingdom.

When the newly inaugurated Biden administration announced in February 2021 that it would end the sale of "offensive" weapons to Saudi Arabia, keeping at least half its promise to end arms sales to the country, the UK refused to follow suit, effectively replacing the weapons the US stopped selling.

Most recently, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak threatened to sanction Germany unless it approved the sale of 48 jointly produced Typhoon Eurofighter jets.

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In the meanwhile, Saudi's £492bn ($600bn) and growing Public Investment Fund, grown fat with spiking oil prices in the wake of the Russia-Ukraine war, moved in to gobble up prestige British assets, including the £300m ($366m) purchase of Newcastle United, and the £650m ($793m) purchase of a 17 percent stake in Aston Martin.

But the UK's public embrace of MBS needed to wait for further softening by the US, signalled by President Joe Biden's July 2022 fist-bump in Jeddah with MBS. With the US back in the saddle, the UK had to move fast to keep up with the contest to rebuild ties to the Saudi monarchy. It pushed for a new free trade agreement with the Gulf states, promising it would significantly increase business opportunities with Saudi Arabia.

It may well be that Sunak extended his invitation to MBS in consultation with the Biden administration, itself working hard to make palatable the treaty guarantees it is preparing to reward Saudi Arabia with in return for Israel-Saudi normalisation.

A visit to London, following the now two visits to Paris, could take the humiliating sting off what MBS is no doubt also demanding as part of his concessions package: a Rose Garden photo op with Biden, who was brought to heel by his own White House.

The real cost

Some will argue that in the world of realpolitik, the UK has no choice but to go along and get along with the abusive Saudi government, just as it does with the Bahraini, Emirati, Egyptian, and Israeli regimes, despite their horrendous human rights records. What these arguments never factor in are the equally real costs to Britain's credibility and the security and safety of its own residents.

The real cost of milking Middle East profits, it turns out, is the global loss of belief in Britain's commitment to any values at all

Foreign Secretary James Cleverly recently claimed that the UK's support for the war in Ukraine reflected not only a commitment to freedom and democracy but a message to dictators who would otherwise believe they could commit crimes with impunity. Sadly, this is a lesson that Britain refuses to learn when it comes to Saudi Arabia.

Khashoggi protest London
A man protests against the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Turkey outside the Saudi Arabian Embassy in London, Britain, on 26 October 2018 (Reuters)

Not only has the Saudi government persisted in heinous abuses in the region - against its own citizens; its brutal, needless war and ongoing embargo of Yemen that has taken the lives of over 370,000 people; and most recently massacres of Ethiopian migrants and asylum seekers at the Saudi border - but continues to attack and threaten activists in the UK, Canada and the US.

As the September 2023 reports about the Indian government's murder of a Canadian citizen in Canada make clear, dictators are indeed confident that the West will look the other way. They see not only the West’s refusal to hold Saudi Arabia accountable, but also their shameless efforts to coddle and kowtow to it.

And if the stiff neutrality or outright refusal of countries outside of Western Europe to support Ukraine against Russia is any indication, few in the world believe Cleverly's rhetoric about democracy or freedom either. They see pretty clearly what happens to purported support for democratic values when petrodollars are waved in Britain's face.

The real cost of milking Middle East profits, it turns out, is the global loss of belief in Britain's commitment to any values at all.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Sarah Leah Whitson is the Executive Director of DAWN, a research and advocacy organisation in the United States founded by the late Jamal Khashoggi. Previously, she served as executive director of Human Rights Watch's Middle East and North Africa Division from 2004 – 2020, overseeing the work of the division in 19 countries, with staff located in 10 countries.
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