7 January 2016

Time to get real about Saudi Arabia


The liberal Left loves to feel morally superior, and Saudi Arabia seems to be an easy target. The left/libs insist that it is a cross between a corrupt monarchy and an oppressive theocracy, which cares nothing for human rights and carries out executions on an industrial scale. So we should have as little as possible to do with it.

As we might expect from such sources, that combines sanctimoniousness, hypocrisy, naivete and strategic witlessness.. Let us start with sanctimony and hypocrisy. The lib/lefties have an especial abhorrence for the death penalty, regarding it as an unforgiveable assault on human dignity. Yet throughout history, most penal codes have included capital punishment. In post-war Britain, when Clement Attlee’s Labour government had a huge majority in the Commons, executions took place. In a House of Lords debate, a majority of the Bishops who sat in the Lords voted to retain hanging. The death penalty was still used under the Tory governments that followed, run by such figures as Harold Macmillan and Rab Butler: hardly men of blood and insensitivity. Back then, supporters of capital punishment argued that abolition would lead to more murders and higher levels of gun crime. They have hardly been proved wrong.

Moreover, since the abolition of hanging, the prison sentences imposed on murderers have grown longer and longer. Is that an improvement in human dignity? A man may retain his dignity on the scaffold, or even in Chop Square, the Riyadh nickname for the execution ground. But it requires someone of Nelson Mandela’s stature to withstand decades of imprisonment without a crumbling into degradation. Again, imprisonment seems more aesthetically acceptable than hanging. But we should not confuse the delicate sensitivities of the left/libs with human dignity.

The hypocrisy is also political. A few years ago, the then Foreign Secretary Robin Cook announced that he would pursue an ethical foreign policy. In practice that meant sucking up to strong countries while giving ethical lectures to weaker ones. So it continues. No-one argues that we should stop trading with the USA, China or India, all of which retain the death penalty. In the days when the Al-Yamama arms contracts were putting roast beef on many a British Sunday lunch table, Chop Square was doing brisk business. Hardly anyone suggested that we should break off relations with Saudi. Now, the country may seem less important, but to claim that this entitles us to take a high tone of disapproval is not morality. It is cynicism.

It is also naive and thoughtless. If there were a shadow government in Saudi, consisting of local versions of John Stuart Mill, and just waiting to introduce democracy and human rights, the critics of the current regime would have a case. But the alternative to the House of Saud would be an altogether more unpleasant regime – in a strategically vital region. Humankind cannot bear very much reality: left/liberal kind, less still. What Saudi needs now is neither democracy nor human rights, but a strong ruler who can introduce some reforms while preserving stability: who can build up the country’s strength while avoiding a nuclear war with Iran. So let us brush aside wittering sanctimoniousness and get real.

Bruce Anderson is a political commentator