Why is there controversy over Theresa May's Saudi Arabia visit?

Theresa May has come under fire for her choice of location for her first foreign visit after triggering Brexit.
Theresa May has said the timetable for the governments Brexit plan was sensible and pragmatic. Picture: APTheresa May has said the timetable for the governments Brexit plan was sensible and pragmatic. Picture: AP
Theresa May has said the timetable for the governments Brexit plan was sensible and pragmatic. Picture: AP

The Prime Minsiter avoided traditional allies like America or France, or even our nearest neighbours Ireland, whose help is vital in breaking the political deadlock in Northern Ireland.

No, Mrs May has elected for a tour of the Middle East, with the main event being trade and security talks with Saudi Arabia.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Politicians and human rights campaigners have criticised the Prime Minister for even dealing with a country with such an abysmal record in that area.

With Mrs May even seeming to resort to making an outspoken comment on the issue of Cadbury Easter Eggs in a bid to distract from the controversy over her visit to the Gulf, we take a look at why such meetings are deemed essential, and why there will always be outrage over them.

With Friends like these

Perhaps it is not the approach of the Prime Minister that gives away most about Britain’s post-Brexit approach to foreign policy.

This week, one only must look at Liam Fox, who was appointed Minister for International Trade and is an arch Brexiteer.

Dr Fox, who had to resign from his previous role as Defence Secretary over his links to lobbyists, was in the Philippines, touting the “shared values” Britain shares with the island nation.

The Tory MP was pictured smiling alongside Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte, who swept to power vowing to personally kill thousands of drug addicts.

Read More
Theresa May: UK is not ignoring principles with Saudi deals

His drug war has been slammed by Amnesty International, and estimates of those killed, including children in street gangs, number in the thousands.

Dr Fox wrote an article in local media that spoke of the relationship he hopes will flourish with the regime of Duterte, who once called President Barack Obama a ‘son of a whore’.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

It seems that working more closely with countries like this is the inevitable outcome for Britain’s foreign trade after we turned our back on the single market.

It seems Dr Fox is untroubled by the human rights concerns as he looks to come good on his promise that Britain can be a more ‘outward-looking’ nation after Brexit.

His low-key trip is unfortunate timing given the concerns that have already been raised regarding his boss Mrs May’s trip to Saudi Arabia.

“Cruel and Inhumane”

That’s how Amnesty International describes the Saudi regime’s approach to corporal and capital punishment.

Those are just some of the human rights abuses that campaigners accuse Theresa May of ignoring as she continues to do business with the Kingdom.

Saudi Arabia does have a ‘modernising’ plan called ‘Saudi 2030’ which is designed to improve the diversity of the workforce and decrease reliance on oil.

There is no news yet on whether this will include rolling back on the restrictions that are placed on women in the country, where it is still considered illegal for women to drive or even swim.

And that is just the concerns of the human rights abuse that are occurring within Saudi Arabia – it is in Yemen where some of the sharpest criticism has come.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

70 per cent of people in that country are now in need of aid following a brutal civil war that has seen a Saudi-led coalition back the incumbent President.

That coalition was accused of war crimes after bombing a packed funeral in Yemen which led to the deaths of well over 100 people.

Mrs May has come under increasing pressure to halt the sale of arms from Britain to Saudi Arabia, with concerns that UK-made bombs are being used to carry out the most controversial operations in the Yemen campaign.

The case for the defence

The case for the defence is almost wholly defence itself.

Theresa May maintains that it is essential for the security of Britain that we have allies like Saudi Arabia in the troubled Middle East region.

Indeed, Mrs May has gone so far in recent days as to claim that working with Saudi Arabia has directly saved lives in the UK.

Backers of the Prime Minister’s stance insist that it is much easier to try and change the domestic policy of Saudi Arabia while as an ally, rather than being on the outside simply adding to the chorus of condemnation.

Others point to subtle points of protest that Theresa May can bring to bear as she visits as a female Prime Minister.

Mrs May flouted her own Government’s Foreign Office on clothing in Saudi Arabia by refusing to wear a headscarf.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Some of the Prime Minister’s allies in the media have already said that she is sending a powerful message to the regime about women’s rights and empowerment.

Like with Liam Fox, it seems that Theresa May wants to look more to the practicalities of seeking new trade deals in the post-Brexit landscape.

One thing is clear – dealing with regimes accused of Human Rights abuses aren’t going to stop any time soon under this Government, and nor is the controversy surrounding it.