Ben Wray: The only 'embarrassing' chat needed is about your support for Saudi Arabia, Theresa May

CommonSpace columnist and Common Weal head of policy Ben Wray says the UK's relationship with Saudi Arabia can no longer be ignored

THERESA MAY'S response to the latest terrorist attack in London was a thinly veiled political dog- whistle – "enough is enough", we need to have "difficult and often embarrassing conversations", there is "far too much tolerance" of terrorism in the UK.

No policy accompanied this rhetoric so we are left to make our own mind up about what and who the prime minister is talking about – but most will draw one conclusion. 

Muslim communities in Britain can expect more suspicion, more spying, more questions about what their friends and family are doing. "Are there terrorist sympathisers in your Mosque?" – this is the sort of "often embarrassing" question May is referring too. Political correctness be damned; it’s time to get tough.

Perhaps it’s time the "difficult and often embarrassing questions" should be directed away from demonising Muslims and towards our own government’s actions, which have been pivotal in creating the context in which terrorism thrives.

The irony is that in the Manchester and London attacks Muslims did make use of government anti-terror hotlines to warn security services about those who ended up carrying out the two atrocities in the past week – it was the security services who failed to respond to these warnings.

So perhaps it’s time the "difficult and often embarrassing questions" should be directed away from demonising Muslims and towards our own government’s actions, which have been pivotal in creating the context in which terrorism thrives.

Last week in this column I looked at the case of Salman Abedi, the Manchester suicide bomber who was part of a group of Manchester Libyans on the proscribed terrorism list who were supported by MI5 in travelling between Manchester and Libya to participate in the overthrow of Gaddafi. 

This was part of a UK and French-led campaign that has left Libya without any central government and a hot-bed for terrorist activity.

While the allegiances of the callous attackers on London Bridge and Borough Market have not yet been fully established, Isis has claimed responsibility for the attack. It follows logically that if we are serious about stopping Isis we would be serious about identifying and cutting off the flow of foreign financial and logistical support it gets.

The Saudis cutting off of diplomatic ties with Qatar for "funding terrorist groups" is a great irony - Saudi funding for Isis is now well established, despite denials from the despotic monarchy. 

Not so. The Guardian reported last week that May is suppressing a government report into foreign funding of Isis, because it is thought to focus on Saudi Arabia. 

The inquiry was only commissioned as part of a deal with the Liberal Democrats for support for air strikes in Syria targeting Isis, but the Home Office now says it may never be published.

The Saudis cutting off of diplomatic ties with Qatar for "funding terrorist groups" is a great irony - Saudi funding for Isis is now well established, despite denials from the despotic monarchy. 

In the leaked Podesta emails, Hillary Clinton’s advisers were clear that Saudi Arabia and Qatar both funded Isis. UK General Jonathan Shaw, a former assistant chief of the defence staff, told the Telegraph in 2014 that Isis is "a time bomb that, under the guise of education, Wahhabi Salafism is igniting under the world really. And it is funded by Saudi and Qatari money and that must stop."

Like the Saudi regime, Isis is Sunni and its Salafist ideology is very similar to Saudi Wahhabism. Angry about Shi’ite control of Iraq and growing Iranian (Shi’ite) influence in the region, Isis has acted as a counter force in Iraq and Syria.

It’s easy to see why May and the Tories don’t want Saudi Arabia’s role in supporting Isis in the spotlight, despite the "enough is enough" rhetoric.

The Saudis themselves have at times let the veil slip, with Prince Saud al-Faisal telling US Secretary of State John Kerry in 2014 that "Daesh is our response to your support for the Da’wa", the Shia US-backed power in Baghdad.

Political support for Isis comes from the Saudis more than any other country.

 

 

It’s easy to see why May and the Tories don’t want Saudi Arabia’s role in supporting Isis in the spotlight, despite the "enough is enough" rhetoric. They are close supporters of the Saudi regime, as well as major exporters of arms for its brutal war in Yemen. 

Indeed, recent figures of UK arms sales since the 2015 General Election shows just how reliant the industry is on war in the Middle East in general, with two thirds of all sales to that region, and the Saudis in particular, who have purchased £3.3bn worth - more than three times all other Middle Eastern countries.

The war in Yemen – where over 10,000 have been killed and schools and hospitals bombed – has been fought with UK tanks, UK bombs, UK aircraft, UK grenades and UK-trained pilots.

The Tories don’t want to talk about this. New figures have revealed Tory MPs have received lavish gifts, consultancy fees and travel expenses in junkets to Saudi Arabia, trips that at least 18 Conservative lawmakers have participated in. 

Indeed, Home Secretary Amber Rudd didn’t want to talk about it so much that she concocted to shut down a rival candidate talking about it in an election hustings.

It’s important to understand that none of this is new: the UK has been a key backer and supporter of Saudi Arabia since its birth. Mark Curtis, a historian of UK foreign policy, describes the relationship between the UK and Saudi Arabia thus: "All the while the Saudis have been exporting Wahhabism and backing Islamist groups and terrorists, they have enjoyed a special relationship with London and Washington. 

"The history is so long and deep it is hard to summarise: basically the relationship is characterised by extreme sycophancy, total military support, constant apologias and carefully controlled media lines that serve to keep the public in the dark about the true extent of relations and the nature of the Saudi regime. 

"It is hard to pinpoint whether Saudi Arabia is a client of the UK or the other way round: probably both, since both set of elites have been happily joined at the hip."

We should also remember that in Saudi Arabia we are talking about a regime in which women are stoned to death for adultery and, just last month, two women were arrested for "witchcraft". Yet Rudd, when pressured about the issue in the election debate by the Greens' Caroline Lucas, could only muster the pitiful response that arms sales are "good for industry", much to the chagrin of the audience. 

Just two months ago, May was in Riyadh smiling and shaking hands with Sheikhs. So much for "enough is enough". In practice, terrorism comes a distant second in May’s priorities to the UK’s strategic interests abroad, up to and including support for the Middle East’s major financial sponsor of Isis.

Enough really is enough, prime minister: enough of putting arms sales before security; enough of protecting the UK’s relationship with Saudi Arabia over unveiling the truth about who funds Isis.

Enough really is enough, prime minister: enough of putting arms sales before security; enough of protecting the UK’s relationship with Saudi Arabia over unveiling the truth about who funds Isis.

There’s too much tolerance of extremism in the UK’s foreign policy. Labour and the SNP are united on this, both including ending arms sales to Saudi Arabia in their party manifestos. Pressure is growing on May to release the report on who funds Isis. Jeremy Corbyn has already raised the issue since the London attack.

If security is going to be the main issue in the final days of the General Election, then let’s make it about how the UK’s support for Saudi Arabia endangers all of our security. 

It’s about time we started getting to the roots of the issue and exposing how war abroad and terror at home go hand in hand.

Picture courtesy of Number 10

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