By Joseph Willits
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David Cameron's first Prime Ministerial visit to Saudi Arabia today will not be helped by the news that a Shia protestor has been killed in eastern Saudi Arabia's Qatif region, in a demonstration calling for the release of Shia political prisoners in the country. His visit also comes at a time when MPs on the Committee on Arms Export Controls demand to know why the Government has continued to sell arms to Saudi Arabia, “given there was some unrest”.
Whilst bilateral trade between the UK and Saudi Arabia (worth £15 billion) will be discussed, so too will be human rights and "regional and international issues of common interest" (as reported by the official Saudi SPA news agency). The situation in Syria and manoeuvres by Iran in the Persian Gulf will inevitably top the agenda.
However, it is an opinion piece in the Times today by William Hague, which is the domestic springboard for today's visit. Hague's comments state the obvious – but it remains to be seen whether it is well or ill-timed for Cameron to raise the issues of human rights and democracy (albeit in different contexts) with the Saudi royal family.
Hague admits that despite it not being ideal that "legitimate concerns" exist since "parties drawing their inspiration from Islam" in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya have done "better at the polls" than their secular counterparts, the democratic choices made by the people should be accepted. He continues:
“We must respect these choices while upholding our own principles of human rights and freedom and urging the highest standards. Trying to pick winners would fatally undermine faith in our intentions and our support for democracy. In standing up for the right of peoples to choose their own representatives at the ballot box, we have to accept their choices and work with the governments they elect.”
It is therefore disconcerting that David Cameron will be discussing the democratic future of Syria and the ousting of President Assad when the Saudis have not only been involved in the crushing of dissent in Bahrain (sending 1,000 troops), but also in their own eastern province. Saudi promises of reform, perhaps comparable to Assad's, have hardly met expectations either. It exposes him to the charge of hypocrisy – and, most crucially, such a stance compromises the diplomatic successes of the Foreign Office under William Hague (and there have been many).
Perhaps Cameron's diplomatic plan is a passive one: for dialogue to continue with the Saudis, as it did with Mubarak and to some extent Gaddafi, in the hope of the regime fading in due course without an active demand of change and democracy. Meanwhile, the rewards of a Saudi relationship can also be reaped. This approach, although perhaps morally objectionable, has its political rewards.
The Saudis, who were the first to issue a strong statement condemning the violent crackdown in Syria by regime forces, did so in the full knowledge of their own hypocrisy. As the Guardian's Brian Whitaker remarked at the time:
"King Abdullah has shown no inclination towards the "quick and comprehensive reforms" that he is now urging upon Syria; Saudi Arabia has nothing to teach Syria about democracy, and protest demonstrations in the kingdom are totally banned. So the king's message to Syria betrays more than a little irony."
Both friendliness towards the Saudis, and an understanding given to Bahrain (unlike other Arab states), foreign policy contrasts Hague's message of "human rights and freedom and urging the highest standards". He did after all write today:
"Trying to pick winners would fatally undermine faith in our intentions and our support for democracy".