Our Prime Minister’s Views on Saudi Arabia and Human Rights is Reckless and Dangerous

Olivia Williams

Boris Johnson is no longer a joke; and his attitude to Saudi Arabia is no different. Day-by-day Johnson’s team announce more false commitments to strengthening Great Britain, but his political charade goes beyond our nation’s borders. 

Human rights are vital to every nation. They free the people from persecution so they can decide their own conception of the good life. Here are some of the key areas our new Prime Minister Boris Johnson has shown a dangerous attitude towards Saudi Arabia and human rights.  

Lack of understanding of the Middle East

Johnson has repeatedly demonstrated a dangerous lack of understanding of affairs in the Middle East. In 2016, when he first became Foreign Secretary, he made headlines, not only by breaking Foreign Office convention of criticising UK allies, but also for disparaging the Saudi and Iranian governments for “puppeteering and playing proxy wars” in the Middle East. His comments, at a conference in Rome, revealed his more extreme views on the region.

“There are politicians who are twisting and abusing religion and different strains of the same religion in order to further their own political objectives. That’s one of the biggest political problems in the whole region. And the tragedy for me – and that’s why you have these proxy wars being fought the whole time in that area – is that there is not strong enough leadership in the countries themselves.”

Johnson’s blasé comments suggest either carelessness or a worryingly simple understanding of political motivations in the Middle East.

They are also massively contradictory. Previously in the Commons he has denied the conflict in Yemen is a proxy war between Saudi and Iran, and so it is hardly surprising that what Emily Thornberry MP has duped his “shabby hypocrisy” continues to this day.

Dishonesty about the arms trade

According to Johnson, the UK operates one of the best arms control regimes in the world, and are committed to International Humanitarian Law. However:

Government statistics show that during his time as Foreign Secretary, Johnson waived convention to allow £1.2 billion worth of arms sales to Saudi Arabia despite Cabinet rules dictating that the Secretary of State for International Trade take responsibility for granting arms export licences.  Johnson seemed unmoved by the devastating repercussions of these sales. In August 2016, a Saudi airstrike killed 14 people when it targeted a Yemeni food factory. Just 2 days later, Johnson signed off yet another licence.

According to Johnson “the key test for our continued arms exports to Saudi Arabia in relation to IHL is whether there is a clear risk that those weapons might be used in a commission of a serious violation of IHL [international humanitarian law].” But even after June 2019, when the Appeals Court rules the arms trade in violation of humanitarian laws, trade was not suspended, only the granting of new licences.

Instead of supporting the ruling, Johnson backed a challenge to it, despite conclusive independent evidence being submitted from a government enquiry, the UN, Amnesty and CAAT. The evidence reveals that:

Disquieting relationship with Saudi government

During his time as Foreign Secretary, Johnson drew criticism for a £14,000 trip to Jeddah from the deep paid for by the Saudi Foreign Ministry, under the veneer of discussing policy to empower women and girls. Since his visit the rights and women and girls in Saudi Arabia have mysteriously disappeared from his agenda.

In the same way the state-sponsored murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Kashoggi and Boris’s own condemnation, fleeted from his mind, barely after the ink had dried on his column in the Telegraph. When Saudi rounded up and imprisoned prominent female rights activists Johnson was again silent.

At the beginning of the month when a series of government decrees announced adult women were able to travel freely, apply for a passport and have more control over family affairs, Johnson was again remarkably silent. Perhaps an act of keeping his rather tarnished golden head beneath the parapet, after the outrageous, outlandish comments published in the Telegraph that described women dressed in burkhas as resembling letterboxes.

What can you do?

We can’t let human rights can’t become the irrelevance that Johnson has made through his rhetoric and his actions.

For all Yemen families, for their vulnerable people and children; the Saudi women who are running away from their communities; for those unable to express their sexuality and for those who cruelly and unfairly punished for their opinions, the LCHR demands we wake up to the human rights injustices.

You can read our policy recommendations on how the British government can help reduce the human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia: http://bit.ly/LCHRsaudipolicy. Please write to your MP urging them to implement these recommendations & end UK complicity in such egregious crimes.