The visit of the Saudi Crown Prince and de facto leader, Mohammed Bin Salman, to London brought human rights to the media forefront, but to little avail. The red carpet of diplomacy is Scotchgarded against stains of shame. Boris Johnson, bastion of helpful human rights interventions, has called the prince “a remarkable young man.” Perhaps the prince’s most remarkable achievement is to have British politicians falling over themselves to call him a liberal reformer even as his regime imprisons and tortures human rights campaigners, and publicly beheads dissidents.
Don’t be fooled by his allowing women behind the steering wheel either. Saudi women remain legally minors who need their husband or father’s permission even to obtain a passport. His anti-corruption drive, with November’s house arrest of over 300 royals and businessmen, looks more about extorting money than about justice. Political opponents fare less well. Saudi jails are bursting with human rights defenders. On January 25 the country convicted two more for attempting to start a human rights organisation, jailing Mohammad al-Oteibi, and Abdullah al-Attawi, for 14 and 7 years respectively. Essam Koshak, a computer engineer who has highlighted repression of peaceful activists, is currently on trial. Saudi Arabia also executes more people for political activism than any other country except China, some with beheading and then crucifixion, despite evidence that their confessions are obtained through torture.
The Prince does not restrict himself to abusing human rights at home, either. As defence minister he played a decisive role in bombing and blockading Yemen, inflicting unimaginable suffering on millions and exacerbating a humanitarian disaster that the UN calls the world’s worst. At the time of writing British-made warplanes pound Western Yemen with British made missiles, cholera and bird flu ravage the population, the blockade of Yemen’s ports mean that more than three-quarters of the population need humanitarian assistance, and eleven million are starving.
This didn’t stop Crispin Blunt MP insisting on the Today programme that we should “put that war into context…It’s the first time the Saudis have stepped up to the plate to conduct this kind of operation and we ought to be grateful .” He added that the red carpet helped us make sure the Kingdom is “doing its absolute level best to make sure there is not the kind of famine and disaster that might go in the wake of the collapse…” The concept of putting a war into context is a new one – one wonders what sort of famine and disaster would ruffle Crispin’s composure.
Sadly, though, it’s not only normal British people who are furious at the Prince’s reception. Al Jazeera portrays Britain to the world as forsaking our principles for the sake of Saudi investment. We have sacrificed Yemen for the sake of £4.6 billion of arms sales. Logically, we need the Prince to drop the bombs he’s already got if we are to sell him replacements. To put it more tragically, when you want friends like bin Salman, you don’t need Yemenis.