There is a dreary inevitability to the way in which the most dreadful creatures turn up at Downing Street or Buckingham Palace. Archbishop Makarios, Jomo Kenyatta, Menachem Begin, Gerry Adams, Martin McGuinness, Robert Mugabe, Nicolae Ceaucescu and Vladimir Putin to name a few. Of the ‘home-grown’ variety, I suppose I would include Tony Blair. So why make such a fuss of his Royal Majesty Mohammad bin Salman?
He’s only a crown prince, after all, wet behind the ears at 32, gouts of blood on his hands to be sure, but scarcely 10,000 have died in his Yemen war. Most of them civilians; but none of them British. Certainly not British soldiers, which didn’t apply to Begin or McGuinness and doesn’t apply to Adams. As for Mohammad’s legal head-choppers, they’ve largely been let loose on Philipinos, Burmese, Pakstanis, Indians and Arabs, women as well as men. Drug-smugglers, murderers, you name it. Saudi ladies will soon be allowed to drive – driving supposedly being a woman’s primary objective in Saudi Arabia – and the British, especially Theresa May, are very keen on this.
You can always tell a fraud, however, by the number of sub-clauses piled up around statements of humanitarian assistance. A real cracker emerged from Downing Street this week when we were assured that Theresa and Mohammad planned – wait for it – “to continue working together to explore ways the UK can support Saudi Arabia to progress (sic)...reforms.” Phew! What it meant, of course, was that Theresa and Mohamed would discover how to improve the miserable UK arms export figures to the Kingdom – a measly £1.1 billion in the past half year, a tiny £836 million of hardware sold to the Saudis in the long months between April and June.
Of course, we Brits must appeal to both sides in the conflict to show “restraint” – an aim never espoused by us about both sides in the war in Syria (whose president, by the way, has also visited Buckingham Palace) – and trumpet our humanitarian assistance to the Yemenis. An extra £50m in aid? Why not? It can be creamed off the £3.6bn we’ve made out of arms sales to the Saudis since the start of the Yemen bloodbath. And then there’s Brexit.
Theresa’s fear that the UK is going to go down the plughole if we really do leave the EU was bound to plunge her into the most unsavoury shopping expeditions. The whole Gulf loves our jets and missiles, just as the Syrians love Putin’s jets and missiles. Putin’s generals boast of the achievements of their arms in the Syrian war. How dare they! Just let’s forget that British soldiers have been demonstrating British targeting systems used during the Yemen war, as Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has raised. And so it goes on. The Tories are so frightened that Brexit means bankruptcy, that they’ll chat to anyone to keep the cash coming in.
Which is why Theresa is doing something faintly familiar when she courts the kings and princes and emirs of the Gulf. In order to get their money, she is appeasing them. Yes, appeasement is her policy with wealthy Arabs, in the most literal sense of the word. She is satiating their appetite for war against the Shia. She is turning her back on the Yemen war, a quarrel in a far away country – you might say – between people of whom we know nothing.
But there is something weirdly macabre – even Roman – about the trucks carrying Mohammad’s smiling face around London. How could such a happy emperor, “progressing” all those “reforms” that he’s “working” with us to “explore” – a modern-day Hadrian perhaps – have sanctioned the execution of opponents, including prominent Shia cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr in January 2016? A former British ambassador to Riyadh, Sir Alun Munro, once advised Westerners to “adapt” to Saudi Arabia, and “to act with the grain of Saudi traditions and culture”. So I guess that’s what we have to do when we contemplate the Saudi penchant for decapitatation, often after torture and unfair trials.
This is important, because in the age of globalisation and the total erasure of all institutionalised memory, we do not remember that Saudi King Faisal came to Buckingham Palace in 1967 at the height of the earlier Yemen civil war – when Nasser supported the republican side, along with the Russians, and the Saudis and Brits helped the royalists. Yemeni villagers were gassed – here we go again – by the Egyptians. But those were the days when the Saudis could get away with anything. “All Her Majesty’s subjects,” Pathé News reported at the time, “join in extending a most cordial welcome to King Faisal of Saudi Arabia.” I bet they did.
Forty years later, however, a more familiar scenario unfolded – though already largely forgotten today. Saudi King Abdullah arrived in 2007 for a state visit “mired in controversy” according to BBC archives. The “controversy” was the cancellation by Tony Blair of the British Special Branch enquiry into alleged bribery of Saudi officials by British arms manufacturers from BAE Aerospace. Protestors demanded that the investigation be reopened – it’s odd, but typically forgetful, that this week’s opponents of the Saudi regime haven’t brought this up again – and held banners which condemned the Saudis as “murderers” and “torturers”. “Put human rights before BAE profits,” said another.
Another former British ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles, KCMG, LVO, was trotted out on the networks this week to praise the Kingdom, where he was known, according to the Saudis themselves, as “Abu Henry”. And it’s intriguing to recall that arguments put forward by the same Cowper-Coles, according to the head of the Serious Fraud Squad in a compelling article in the Financial Times in 2006, “very much helped me to make my decision to discontinue the investigation”.
“Abu Henry”, it seems – and again I quote the FT – “told how the probe might cause Riyadh to cancel security and intelligence cooperation, potentially depriving London of access to vital surveillance of terror suspects during the haj pilgrimage to Mecca... The ambassador had even suggested [that] persisting with the SFO probe could endanger lives in Britain.” Two days later, the bribery enquiry was scrapped. Thus Theresa May could this week tell us how many “thousands” of British lives had been saved by Saudi intelligence cooperation – which would not have been forthcoming, of course, had the SFO’s investigation continued.
But it’s all in a good cause, isn’t it? Bygones must be bygones. Brexit means Brexit. Enough is enough. And just look how Mohammad smiles. Forget Saudi Arabia’s support for the Taliban. Forget that 15 of the 19 hijackers of 9/11 were Saudis. Forget the Wahabi faith that inspired al-Qaeda and Isis. Macron – who couldn’t even bring up Egyptian human rights when he met President/Field Marshal al-Sissi in Paris – is not going to raise such nonsense when he meets Mohammad at the weekend. And by the time our favourite Crown Prince arrives in Washington to meet Trump, he’s going to be the reformer-in-chief who is going to make Saudi Arabia Great Again. And you can’t beat that, can you?