As a Foreign Office minister spoke out on the killing, trade officials were in the kingdom promoting closer military links
Sun 11 Nov 2018
Sales of Typhoon jets to Saudi Arabia are a central part of Britain’s trade strategy as it prepares for Brexit. Photograph: Petros Karadjias/AFP/Getty Images
Britain has pursued its assiduous courtship of Saudi Arabia despite the murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi, with diplomats and Ministry of Defence officials meeting their counterparts in the kingdom to discuss closer economic, military and political ties.
The discussions have taken place as Britain enters the final phase of negotiations to sell more Typhoon jets to Riyadh. They are similar to those used in the Saudi-led bombing of Yemen in a war that has caused a humanitarian disaster.
Britain sells billions of pounds of weapons to the countries bombing Yemen and is keen to strengthen its ties after Brexit. In July last year, the government confirmed it had created a dedicated Gulf region working group to promote “high-level dialogue with key trading partners to progress our trade and investment relationships”. Since then, civil servants have regularly visited the region for confidential talks to prepare for future deals once Britain leaves the European Union.
A delegation from the Department for International Trade visited the Eastern Province chamber of commerce in Dammam in Saudi Arabia on 2 October – the day Khashoggi was murdered. Alastair Long, the UK’s deputy trade commissioner for the Middle East and director of trade for Saudi Arabia, stressed that Britain was keen to create alternative markets and that Saudi Arabia “is at the head of these markets”.
On 31 October, another UK government delegation visited Riyadh for a meeting with the Gulf Cooperation Council secretariat. A press release from the council said the meeting discussed expanding “the horizons of political, security, military and commercial cooperation”. Only 24 hours earlier, Alistair Burt, the Foreign Office minister for the Middle East, had suggested that the Khashoggi murder could affect Britain’s military relationship with the Saudis and support for the war in Yemen.
Andrew Smith, of Campaign Against Arms Trade, said: “As the crisis worsens, and even after the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, it is clear that Downing Street is more concerned with securing arms sales than promoting human rights.”
This week British and Saudi defence officials and contractors are expected to meet at the Bahrain International Airshow. The organisers say there will be a 40% increase in the number of country pavilions, with delegations from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Britain and Taiwan. British and Saudi officials are negotiating the sale of 48 Typhoon aircraft, following the signing of a memorandum of intent in March. Production could start as early as next year.
At least 57,538 civilians and combatants have been killed in Yemen since the beginning of 2016, according to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project. “The Saudi-led coalition is inflicting a humanitarian catastrophe on Yemen,” Smith said. “And yet BAE Systems and the UK government are doing everything they can to sell even more fighter jets to the regime.”
A spokeswoman for the trade department said: “We will not pursue trade to the exclusion of human rights – they can and should be complementary.”