Campaigners have called for a radical shift in Britain’s relationship with Saudi Arabia, the UK’s biggest arms market, after the Saudi supreme court upheld the sentence of 1,000 lashes and 10 years in prison given to blogger Raif Badawi.
Blogger Raif Badawi’s wife, Ensaf Haidar, takes part on an Amnesty International protest in front of the Saudi Arabia embassy in Berlin last month. Photograph: Florian Boillot/Demotix/Corbis
The previous UK coalition government approved arms sales to Saudi Arabia worth almost £4bn. British-made Tornado or Typhoon jets have been used in air strikes against Yemen and Britain is supporting a naval blockade the UN says is exacerbating the humanitarian disaster in one of the world’s poorest countries.
Saudi Arabia will potentially be an even more lucrative market for UK weapons in the light of its decision, reported last week by IHS Jane’s Aerospace, Defence & Security, to increase its defence budget by 27% over the next five years.
Speaking from Canada, Badawi’s wife, Ensaf Haidar, said she feared his punishment would start again on Friday after the ruling. Badawi received his first 50 lashes in January, but subsequent floggings have been postponed.
The blogger was arrested in 2012 for “insulting Islam through electronic channels”. For four years he ran the Liberal Saudi Network, which encouraged online debate about religious and political issues.
Andrew Smith of Campaign Against Arms Trade said: “The human rights situation in Saudi Arabia is dire. The fact that it is also the world’s largest buyer of UK weapons is a sign of the real hypocrisy at the heart of UK foreign policy.”
A Foreign Office spokeswoman said on Monday: “We are extremely concerned that Raif Badawi’s sentence has been upheld … We have raised his case at the most senior levels in the government of Saudi Arabia and will continue to do so.”
The UK supported the UN security council’s call for a further humanitarian ceasefire in Yemen to allow delivery of aid, she said, and was urging the Saudi-led coalition to end a blanket blockade of ships introduced to cut off the supply of arms to Yemeni rebels..
“We are not participating directly in military operations, but are providing support to the Saudi Arabian armed forces through pre-existing arrangements,” she said.
Britain is also deepening its defence relationship with Bahrain, another Gulf state widely criticised for serious human rights abuses. The outgoing UK ambassador to Bahrain, Iain Lindsay, told Gulf Daily News over the weekend that a new British naval base there was aimed at deterring regional threats and maintain security in the Gulf.
“Work on the first permanent British base in the region since 1971 is scheduled to start later in the summer,” he said.
The UN committee on torture last week asked the Bahrain government to investigate the case of Nabeel Rajab, the country’s best-known dissident who was sentenced in January to six months in prison for “publicly insulting” official institutions” on Twitter. He had posted comments suggesting the island state’s security agencies may have acted as “incubators of extremist ideologies” for Bahrainis who join Islamic State.
Britain’s close ties with Bahrain were demonstrated in a series of meetings last month. King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa visited the Queen at Windsor, while Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa met David Cameron in Downing Street and the Bahraini security chief, General Tariq al-Hassan, had talks with Home Office officials.