UK-Saudi relations: the warming trend continues

Summary: following the prime minister’s meeting with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Riyadh in March, a Saudi Shura Council delegation visits Westminster and meets with the business minister Kwasi Kwarteng to the horror of the Saudi opposition.

Parliaments in the Arab world have a poor record. They have not been able to resist tyrants and more often have been a tool in their hands. Where they exist, they exist alongside but not in control of state power. The main reason for this is that parliamentary democracy is a foreign system, first introduced by British and French imperialism, and although that may have been largely forgotten it remains foreign, fitting awkwardly or not at all with indigenous power structures. “One man one vote” makes little sense in a society where the individual counts for little compared with the collective interest of family, tribe, village, town quarter or religious or sectarian identity. When Qatar’s previous Emir, Sheikh Hamad, was first exposed to democracy on a trip to London when he was still a boy, legend has it that the concept seemed so ridiculous to him that he had to be led in hysterical laughter from the balcony of the House of Commons after witnessing his first debate.

Democratic institutions that do exist in the Arab world are widely perceived as being susceptible to corruption and electoral fraud (not of course an issue confined to the Middle East).  Libya’s Qadhafi, with his knack of articulating the view of the street, stated this simply in his “Green Book” – representation is fraud, in that the people are told they have the power because they elect representatives but the representatives then usurp their sovereignty and act instead of them.

On Monday 16 May what was called a visiting Saudi “interparliamentary delegation” was welcomed to Westminster by a group of British parliamentarians. The event, which took place in collaboration with the All Party Parliamentary Groups and the British Embassy in Saudi Arabia, also saw the Saudi delegation meet the UK Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, Kwasi Kwarteng.

Kwasi Kwarteng Saudis
Members of Saudi Arabia’s Consultative Assembly meeting with Kwasi Kwarteng MP at Westminster on Monday 16 May [photo credit: @BGIPU]
“Excellent exchange between @beisgovuk Minister @KwasiKwarteng & visiting interparliamentary delegation from #SaudiArabia on #energy policy incl. importance of partnership on green & innovative policies to address national & global challenges” tweeted the British Group Inter-Parliamentary Union, an organisation dedicated to advancing the parliamentary dimension of Britain’s foreign relations.

“Important to meet members from Consultative Assembly of [Saudi] in @UKParliament today on behalf of the @BGIPUtweeted Conservative MP Richard Holden. “Democratic rights are achieved in stages. Saudi has made progress & I will always encourage that progress to be faster.”

Online, the inter-parliamentary meetings were fiercely denounced by the Saudi opposition.

“Has British embassy in Riyadh become one of the Saudi regime influencers?” tweeted Professor Madawi al-Rasheed, Fellow of the British Academy.

“UK is second to the US in arming the Saudi regime that destroyed Yemen, a poor country, killed journalists and detained hundreds of activists, feminists, and religious scholars – but please don’t call appointed members of a council parliamentarians.”

“There is no parliament in the Arabian Peninsula. There is a fictitious council (the Shura Council), all of whom are employees appointed by the occupied Saudi regime, whose mission is to pass the regime’s agendas in misleading the people and world opinion!” tweeted Dakheel Al Qahtani, leader of the Arabian Peninsula Liberation Movement and a former senior non-commissioned officer in Saudi Air Defence.

He continued: “We condemn the British Parliament elected by the British people for receiving a Saudi parliamentary delegation which was not elected by the people and does not represent the people, but was appointed on royal orders and is considered a participant in the crimes of the Saudi regime.”

Besides the novelty of parliamentary democracy, the Saudi delegation may also have been intrigued to find themselves dealing face to face with Kwasi Kwarteng MP, since black people in Saudi Arabia are subject to institutional racial discrimination and normally only hold marginalized positions in lower socio-economic groups.

Though Saudis of African descent constitute 10 percent of the population according to the US Central Intelligence Agency’s World Factbook, there are very few black Saudi TV presenters, university deans, judges, senior government officials or diplomats and very few black Saudis in high ranking positions in the government, school administration, universities or judiciary. According to the Center for Democracy and Human Rights in Saudi Arabia (CDHR), a Washington-based NGO advocating for democratic reform in the Kingdom black Saudis are subject to “stigmatization and social segregation” and, for example, in social situations are expected to “sit in the back when in the living rooms of non-blacks”. Many black people in Saudi Arabia, the CDHR stated, both citizens and non-citizens, are forced to scavenge through rubbish or become prostitutes in order to survive.

Hopefully the Saudi delegation’s trip to Westminster has had a big impact on how they view democracy, rather than the other way around, since the Saudis do have a well-established history of meddling in UK internal affairs and corrupting senior UK officials, including policemen, or as the Saudi agents who attacked Saudi dissident Ghanem Al Masarir Al Dowsari in broad daylight outside Harrods in 2018 so memorably put it: “F*** London, their Queen is our slave and their police are our dogs.”

One does not need to look far for evidence of the influence the Saudis wield over some British parliamentarians. Last December Conservative MP Daniel Kawczynski, AKA the Honourable member for Saudi Arabia, was reported to the parliamentary commissioner for standards after the Guardian obtained leaked messages showing how he had begged for lucrative consultancy work from the Saudis.

In one message, Kawczynski, who chaired the All-Party Group for Saudi Arabia between 2011 and 2016, wrote:

“I am looking for a position with a company as non exec director or adviser/consultant. Obviously my passion for Anglo Arab relations [is] something which could help a company with relations in the UK or Middle East. Not sure what remuneration I am looking for but you are such a good negotiator!!! Best wishes Daniel.”

In another exchange Kawczynski’s Saudi interlocutor raised the prospect of arranging paid work for Kawczynski with Saudi businessman Yasser bin Homran: “He has money and is from a very prominent family in Saudi. He wants to engage in politics.” The Tory backbencher replied within minutes: “He wants to engage in British politics?? What time are you free in morning to discuss please?”

In other messages Kawczynski, who describes himself as the most “pro-Saudi” member of parliament and boasts that Mohammed bin Salman “has stated that Saudi has no better friend in UK than me”, repeatedly asks for regular paid work: “Please do your best … I need an important strategic position which will allow me to spend time in Gulf ideally helping and advising an important company.”

“Ideally I am looking for a consultancy in monthly basis as I need the stability of regular income…. Promise you will push for good remuneration too for me” he begs. “I need it to pay school fees!”

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Access provided by the Bodleian Libraries of the University of Oxford