27th October 2015
When a genuinely extraordinary political decision is taken the consequences can often be telling.
Such decisions are not those usual ones that are predetermined or stage-managed, as are the stuff of any political system under the public gaze. They are instead the decisions that suddenly disturb and disrupt the settled practices of those with power; they are decisions the effects of which are often worth watching carefully.
Earlier this month, the UK prime minister David Cameron ordered that the Ministry of Justice should pull out of a bid to provide training services to the prisons of Saudi Arabia.
The exact basis of that decision is not yet clear.
But it was not one which the Saudis and their allies in the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) were expecting the UK government to make; indeed, the FCO had until then managed to oblige the MoJ to continue with the bid even though the Justice Secretary, Michael Gove, was against it.
The Saudis are not happy with this decision, or about its significance.
The contract proposal itself was not big in the global scheme of things — just under £6m; it was more that the usual tactic of Saudis threatening to not “co-operate” unless they got their way did not work for once. It seemed as if a bluff was being called. The FCO had not wanted to upset the Saudis, but this supposed “wider” interest of the government was trumped by the prime minister effecting a quick fix to a cabinet split that was about to be exploited by the media and the opposition.
The Saudis have now reacted publicly.
In Monday’s Daily Telegraph is a remarkable article from the Saudi ambassador in London, Mohammed bin Nawaf bin Abdulaziz. The ambassador’s piece is worrying — and revealing.
The article warns of the adverse consequences of the UK treating the Saudis with disrespect.
But it does so in a clumsy and discreditably strident manner.
The ambassador’s overall tone is evocative of some international protection racketeer telling the UK what a nice little country we have here, and wouldn’t it be a shame if “co-operation” ended.
One wonders if anyone at the Saudi embassy in London had the wit or sense to tell the ambassador to desist from publishing such a blatant exercise in implicit intimidation. Perhaps somebody did, and the first draft was even worse. Who knows. What is clear, however, is that Saudis do not react well to being told that they are not going to get their way.
The ambassador’s article bears close attention, both for what it says and what it does not say.
For example, there are general threats with only the thinnest of veils:
“…an alarming change…potentially serious repercussions that could damage the mutually beneficial strategic partnership…a strong alliance [which up] until a few weeks ago, I would have said it had never been stronger”.
Then the threats become more specific. First, in respect of commercial matters:
“The Kingdom’s contribution to Britain’s security and economy provides the foundations on which the bilateral relations between our two countries are built, allowing trade, cultural exchanges and military cooperation to flourish. Saudi Arabia ultimately provides over 50,000 British families in the UK and the Kingdom with livelihoods, thanks to commercial contracts worth tens of billions of pounds. Saudis also have an estimated £90 billion in private business investments in the UK.
“If the extensive trade links between the two countries are going to be subordinate to certain political ideologies, then this vital commercial exchange is going to be at risk.”
(On this point, also see the FT’s news report yesterday of the threat to the Typhoon contract.)
And then in terms of British lives and limbs:
“…the Kingdom remains an invaluable source of intelligence on the activities of terrorist groups. Information from Saudi intelligence in 2010 resulted in a major counter-terrorism success by scuttling an al-Qaeda attempt to blow up a cargo airliner over Britain. In a recent interview, David Cameron confirmed the importance of our contribution when he declared: “Since I have been Prime Minister a piece of information that we have been given by (Saudi Arabia) has saved potentially hundreds of lives here in Britain.” Given information to which I am privy, that number is, in fact, in the thousands.”
The message is plain: the UK had better be careful.
Here it is important to remember what the prime minister’s decision was about.
It was a decision that a relatively small UK government department should not bid for overseas work but should instead concentrate on domestic matters.
It is the sort of issue that any sovereign government should be able to make in respect of its own public services.
But the ambassador has such a distorted a view of national sovereignty that he misses the irony of him complaining that the UK does not respect Saudi Arabia as a sovereign state while saying that it was not open to the MoJ to drop a bid so that it concentrate on domestic activities in England and Wales.
The ambassador’s express criticism of the political approach of the UK’s new leader of the opposition also looks at odds with the insistence that the UK should not interfere with the internal affairs of another country.
The ambassador’s article is telling in other ways.
The propensity of the Saudis to use barbaric physical punishments is blithely passed off as a local tradition and custom, as if tying someone to a pole and flogging them nearly to death is somehow comparable to having a pole on a village green for dancing around on May mornings.
The ambassador also appears not even to be properly informed as to the matter in hand. He states that the UK prison cancelled a consultancy contract with Saudi Arabia worth £5.9m. In fact, the contract was not yet in place. It had not been signed because the Saudis had not yet awarded the contract to the UK – even though the final bid had been in April and the Saudis had still not made their decision by October (the intention was that the contract was to have been awarded by July).
What was cancelled was not a contract, but a contract bid. But such details do not matter to the ambassador, even though he is mounting threats on the back of what he says has happened.
Ever since the Saudis pressed the UK in 2006 to drop the fraud investigation of BAe (read the first 22 paragraphs of the House of Lords’ 2008 Corner House decision for a chilling account of this dreadful incident) it has been obvious to anyone who wants to see what the influence of the Saudis is over the UK state by holding the twin swords of commerce and intelligence close to our necks.
So used are the Saudis in routinely threatening that “co-operation” will be at risk that various UK bodies not directly connected with foreign affairs – the Home Office, the MoJ, the College of Policing, and even the Information Commissioner (as I set out in a post earlier this month) – are all too scared even to reveal minor details of the relationships, lest the Saudis retaliate.
Against this backdrop, the decision of the Prime Minister earlier this month has caused a jolt in UK-Saudi relations. It may well be that something substantial has changed; or it may be that the old practices will resume.
But what is new is that Saudi diplomats have now taken to the pages of the British press to display their displeasure, and to make explicit in the media what they want the UK to believe is at stake. To do this, however, does not indicate Saudi strength but insecurity; it means what was said behind closed doors is no longer sufficient.
The blustering and bullying is now in the public square, and this cannot be undone; everyone can see the Saudis for what they are.
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