When my children were under the age of five, there was a book we enjoyed reading called Oh, Boris! It was the story of a large, enthusiastic bear who joins a classroom of smaller animals, and – without malign intent on his part – regularly sets them squealing. The lament of “Oh, Boris!” attended each fresh kerfuffle.
Boris Johnson, the Foreign Secretary, is clearly not a bear – although his appearance has its ursine elements – but one suspects that “Oh, Boris!” is a cry frequently heard now in the Foreign Office. For Boris is, among other things, a former journalist of the most outspoken kind, and the instincts of a journalist are generally at odds with the restrictions placed upon a politician.
The “Oh, Boris!” moment that has caused most upset recently was the footage of the Foreign Secretary in Rome, lamenting the absence of “big characters” who were willing to reach beyond religious differences and “develop a national story again”. He continued: “That’s why you’ve got the Saudis, Iran, everybody, moving in and puppeteering and playing proxy wars.” Cue sharp intakes of breath among officials at the Foreign Office at the juxtaposition of the word “Saudis” with “proxy wars”: with that, Johnson’s remark fell into the forbidden category of “public criticism of an ally”.
Particularly vexing, for the Government, was that it came just as Theresa May had been photographed alongside King Salman of Saudi Arabia while on a visit to the Gulf. Indeed, Downing Street avowed that the Prime Minister was committed to “strengthening and enhancing” the Saudi relationship, which has long been sold to the increasingly uneasy British public as a necessary triumph of realpolitik over moral coherence.
The nub of the realpolitik argument is that Saudi Arabia is the biggest customer for the British arms industry, and that Saudi intelligence on Islamist terror plots helps to keep this country safe. To that has now been added the consideration that, in potential post-Brexit turmoil, we can’t afford to offend one of our chief trading partners.
The moral argument against the British Government’s cosy relationship with the Saudi government, of course, is overwhelming. Saudi Arabia is an absolute monarchy which has systematically trampled on human rights, in particular those of women and gay people. It refuses to tolerate religious freedom or freedom of speech, as demonstrated by its flogging and imprisonment of the writer and activist Raif Badawi. Its medieval legal system includes the sentence of public beheading for the crime of witchcraft.
The concepts upon which Saudi Arabia depends are fundamentally opposed to those which Britain purports to cherish.
The official denial of this reality has led the UK into some grotesque contortions over the years. There was the uncomfortable spectacle of Prince Charles performing a traditional sword dance in Riyadh on his 2014 visit. In early 2015 the Union flag was flown at half mast along Whitehall following the death of the Saudi King Abdullah. Such actions, if challenged by domestic critics, will be defended by officials in the name of trade and realpolitik.
Yet there is growing evidence that our long-standing Saudi friendship – which appears to have become an article of faith in government circles – has cost us more than our reputation. For decades now, the Saudi government has heavily funded and disseminated its rigidly fundamentalist, Wahhabist form of Islam across the world, disrupting or blotting out local Islamic traditions that lived in harmony with other faiths. Although it is not the only source of Islamist fundamentalism, it has been a very significant one.
The country has also long been implicated in the funding of Islamist terrorist groups, as evidenced in the leaked US state department memo in 2009 which called it “a critical financial support base for al-Qaeda and the Taliban”; and another in August 2014 which argued that it had provided “clandestine financial and logistic support to ISIS and other radical groups in the region”.
Although Saudi Arabia is now reportedly attempting to contain such groups, its current military intervention in Yemen – where it has been widely accused of the reckless destruction of areas, infrastructure and civilian lives with British-made arms – is a further source of shame, compromising the position of the UK government as it seeks to censure Russian and Assad regime atrocities against civilians in Syria.
Britain’s friendship with Saudi Arabia is a bit like knocking about with the local thug, telling everyone “he’s all right once you get to know him”, only to discover later that he has placed incendiary devices underneath half the town, including your own house. As the Foreign Secretary is duly roped back into line, however, we might reflect that in this particular “Oh, Boris!” moment he is quite right. Our dance with Saudi Arabia is not only morally indefensible: it has also proved to be bad realpolitik.
Jenny McCartney is a writer and reviewer