It is a puzzle that the Prime Minister is making a second visit to Saudi Arabia. Of course Theresa May will have received a friendly welcome as the leader of the sixth largest economy in the world, which in addition is a permanent member of the UN Security Council. It also presumably still counts that the UK is a member of the European Union, though Brexit will soon cancel out that advantage.
There is a strong public relations flavour to this journey to the Middle East. It is described as part of the Prime Minister’s efforts to strengthen links with other trading partners as Brexit approaches. Or, as I would put it, to help create the myth that a series of bilateral deals with economies outside the European Union will make good what we shall lose by leaving the single market.
This must be why Theresa May is also visiting Jordan on the same trip. But it is a fool’s errand, for Jordan doesn’t import a lot. We carry on more trade with Belgium and Luxembourg. So the Jordan leg of the Prime Minister’s journey is more or less irrelevant to Britain’s trade prospects post-Brexit.
In the case of Saudi Arabia, however, we have our arms sales, worth more than £3.3bn since the bombing of Yemen began in March 2015. Yet in spite of British complicity in this action, May was expected to raise with her hosts the humanitarian crisis in Yemen that has been the inevitable result.
It beats me how she can do this with a straight face. What could she have said in her meeting with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman today? “Oh, I forgot to tell you on my last visit that you mustn’t actually use the arms we have sold to you”?
Or, more likely, “Look, while I fully understand that you cannot tolerate Iranian-backed Houthi rebels operating on the other side of your 1,100-mile border with Yemen, I am afraid that the traditional British sympathy for the underdog means that my people strongly disapprove of your actions. So I would appreciate it if you could let it be known that you will at least consider my representations. You will? Oh, I am very grateful.”
There is, however, a much bigger source of embarrassment for a visiting British prime minister. As Jeremy Corbyn put it, the conversation about Islamic extremism should begin with “Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states that have funded and fuelled extremist ideology.”
While the Saudi government rejects what it calls these false allegations and dismisses them as malicious falsehoods, the circumstantial evidence is pretty convincing.
Here we have to rely on Wikileaks. In 2009, it published diplomatic cables from the US State Department stating: “Saudi Arabia remains a critical financial support base for al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and other terrorist groups, including Hamas, which probably raise millions of dollars annually from Saudi sources.”
Pointing in the same direction were emails leaked from the office of Hillary Clinton. Her campaign chairman, John Podesta, said: “We need to use our diplomatic and more traditional intelligence assets to bring pressure on the governments of Qatar and Saudi Arabia, which are providing clandestine financial and logistic support to Isis and other radical Sunni groups in the region.”
Then in 2014, the Iraqi prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, accused both Saudi Arabia and Qatar of supporting and funding terrorists: “I accuse them of inciting and encouraging the terrorist movements.” He added: “I accuse them of supporting them politically and in the media, of supporting them with money and by buying weapons for them.”
So I go back to my question: what on earth is Theresa May doing cosying up to the Saudis with two visits so far this year? I hope she doesn’t have ambitions to be some sort of honest broker in the Middle East. For many have tried – and none have succeeded.
My guess is that she is seeking a large financial investment in the UK. She would think that worth the many embarrassments she must have experienced on her journey.