In the eternal struggle between profit and decency the doctor is sure that the government will keep human rights at the top of the agenda, even when dealing with Saudi Arabia. Mrs May has made a trade agreement with the Gulf states a priority. The Kingdom is pushing too. At Chatham House on March 27 a Saudi researcher suggested to Sir Keir Starmer that a trade agreement post Brexit might be a priority, adding that one with the EU only failed to materialise because the EU is ‘a bureaucracy.’ She didn’t mention that the Gulf States walked out of talks in 2008 angry at EU requirements around human rights.
The EU are not alone in trying to hold the Saudis to account. Last April the UN Committee Against Torture expressed concern about floggings, stonings, amputations, torture in detention and conviction (and execution) on such confessions. They challenged the Kingdom’s increasing use of the death penalty, including for minors and the mentally impaired, and specifically raised the cases of Raif Badawi and Ali Mohammed Baqir al-Nimr. Badawi, 33 and diabetic, awaits 950 further lashes for blogging about the value of liberalism and secularism. Al-Nimr participated in Arab Spring protests aged 17, and awaits ratification of his sentence of beheading, followed by crucifixion. The Saudi delegation refused to discuss the men. They denied almost everything else, claiming the country is forging ahead in promoting human rights. More worryingly, the Kingdom appears to be trying to buy a human rights record rather than earn one: In June the UN removed them from their annual “list of shame” of those violating human rights in combat, despite their record in Yemen, amidst reports that they had threatened to otherwise withdraw massive sums of UN funding. The Kingdom was then elected onto the UN Human Rights Council, giving them a say on worldwide human rights including freedom of expression, freedom of religion, and women’s rights, all of which they are known for, but not in a good way. Despite UNCAT, and despite the mass beheading of 47 people a few months earlier, nobody blocked them. One of their supporters was reportedly the UK. Indeed, Philip Hammond had earlier refused to condemn the mass execution, suggesting that those executed were all convicted terrorists. He omitted to mention that the Kingdom’s definition of terrorism is scarily broad, that four committed their crimes while underage, and that at least four were political protesters. When this was raised, he said there was no point objecting to Saudi execution because “however much we lobby… they are not going to end it.”
Mrs May obviously intends to be more robust. When accused in December of making deals with questionable regimes she insisted that engaging on trade would allow human rights issues to be raised. The doctor is mightily relieved that such worthy intentions underlie such ethically distasteful choice of future partners, and trusts she will raise them so loudly that the chink of gathering riyals doesn’t completely drown her out.