For Ameen Nemer, a human rights activist from Saudi Arabia, the UK’s relationship with the Saudi government has come at a cost. Filmed last year, Rethinking Security’s interview with Ameen is released this week, amid increasing public concern about the continuing arms trade between the two nations. In this special blog post, he tells us why it’s time to rethink security.

When people in the UK think about Saudi Arabia, they perhaps now have an impression that the country is becoming more liberal. They’ve seen footage of women driving cars and they think ‘yes, progress is being made.’

This is because the authorities in Saudi Arabia are very careful about the image they put out, letting the international community believe that there is more freedom for citizens. They want the world to think that free speech, free assembly, women’s rights and so on are all getting better.  But the truth is that my home country is not reforming – the Government (which is also the Royal Family) is still authoritarian and repressing its own people – and is still leading the attacks on Yemen. 

What ordinary Saudi people want is change. But real, genuine change that’s led by the public and which works for the public. Since I fled in 2016 and came to the UK to seek sanctuary, there have been many more men and women arrested and detained for trying to peacefully bring about such change.

Not long after, I saw the news coverage of the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, which the UN has concluded was a premeditated extrajudicial killing, for which Saudi Arabia was responsible. The UK government has just imposed sanctions on 20 Saudis presumed responsible but said nothing about the role of the Saudi regime or royals that they work for. The Saudi government will continue to stamp out any calls for sustainable change, and those who are dedicated to speaking out for human rights continue to have to risk their lives, or leave the country. 

 The UK is part of the problem

Of course, I am grateful to be in the UK and this enables me to build a new life here. In my spare time I take every opportunity to make the most of the freedom of speech I enjoy here to do talks and interviews – and blog posts! Here I am free to continue my human rights work, both to support people back home and to raise awareness among those who aren’t familiar with what’s going on. 

But, as the film shows, my new home (the UK) is part of the problem. Saudi Arabia is the UK’s biggest arms customer, and it’s using those weapons in Yemen. Last year, the High Court ruled that the UK’s sale of arms to Saudi was unlawful, but the Government refused to suspend its exports and has just lifted the Court’s restrictions on its ability to issue new licenses to arms exporters. The UK is not alone in this – last month it was revealed that Canada more than doubled its sales of military equipment to Saudi Arabia between 2018 and 2019. What the UK, the US, Canada, France and others are doing, and have been doing since the 1960s, is making a totalitarian regime more and more capable of war.

So, we have a Government that’s basically propping up a conflict – in which civilians are dying – because of commercial interests. And weapons (and military training) are not the only export; by continuing this relationship the UK is lending legitimacy to Saudi power. It is supporting that deceptive image of Saudi Arabia as a reforming nation – in other words, it’s acting as their PR firm.

 “Because national security”

The UK Government will, time and again, claim that being an ally to Saudi Arabia is not only a money-maker, but is benefitting UK national security. They will say that terrorism by fundamentalist Islamists is a threat to both countries and having a co-operative relationship, and sharing intelligence, with Saudi Arabia is necessary to prevent attacks on British soil.

But the public here has already decided it’s not worth it; almost two thirds of Brits oppose arms sales to Saudi Arabia. They don’t see a benefit for national security, nor do they see the UK’s supposed ‘soft power’ having any positive influence on the Saudi human rights situation. So more and more, the public are beginning to wonder if this arrangement is doing more harm than good. 

Rethinking security means taking a look at old and common assumptions about foreign policy, and to me, Saudi Arabia is a good place to start. Why? Because I can no longer live in my country for fear of persecution, and because millions of people there continue to suffer. They are the ones paying the price, and when we rethink security – and when the Government writes its next Review – we must listen to their voices.

The views and opinions expressed in posts on the Rethinking Security blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position of the network and its broader membership.

Image Credit: CAAT