AS Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s motorcade pulled up at 10 Downing Street last week, a man hurled an egg at his convoy. The crown prince went on to lunch with the queen, dine with princes and launch a strategic partnership with the prime minister. The egg-thrower was arrested on suspicion of criminal damage. One hesitates to think what would have happened if the protester had hit his target rather than a police car.
The excessive reaction to the failed egging attempt in a country where protest is tolerated sends a chilling message: in a multipolar world, you can get away with anything.
The egg thrower joined demonstrators protesting Saudi Arabia’s and the UK’s role in the war in Yemen (the latter in the form of arms sales), which has killed more than 10,000 people and led to a major humanitarian crisis. Specifically, the crown prince’s role in establishing an aid blockade and authorising indiscriminate shelling of civilian targets and agricultural lands led to major opposition.
Despite the backlash, Theresa May and Mohammed bin Salman agreed on a £65 billion trade and investment target and, more controversially, signed a £100m aid agreement, which would see the UK’s Department for International Development partner with the Saudi Fund for Development to deliver infrastructure in drought- and conflict-hit countries. Given Saudi’s humanitarian record in Yemen, the hypocrisy of the aid deal rankles.
The world engages in a post-colonial double standard.
But the Tory government had no choice but to roll out the red carpet for the Saudi crown prince. A post-Brexit Britain needs all the trade deals it can lap up, no matter the ethical implications. It needs the London Stock Exchange to be included in any international listing of Aramco; it needs the kingdom to purchase 48 Typhoon fighter jets from BAE Systems and help save jobs in the British defence sector. And when such deals are on the table, lip service to democracy and human rights is sufficient (the UK government praised Salman’s efforts to liberalise Saudi Arabia by allowing women to drive and lifting a ban on cinemas, as if that balances out its interventions in Yemen and Lebanon and its proxy support for violent extremist groups).
The British bend-over-backwards approach to Saudi Arabia is a reminder that in a world of shifting power dynamics — where China and Russia are resurgent and major democracies such as the UK and US are crumbling under the weight of internal divisions and growing inequality — states that choose to attack, oppress or violate human rights can do so with impunity.
Respect for national sovereignty has meant that there was little the community of nations could do about a state’s violation of its own citizens’ rights. But countries that engaged in egregious behaviour knew that there would be some fallout: hindrances in diplomatic ties with superpowers; a backing off by investors wary of the reputational risk; limited support at international forums. But the prince’s UK visit — much like Trump’s praise for the president of the Philippines, where the government has authorised the gunning down of suspected drug dealers — shows that times have changed.
What does this mean for Pakistan? It is tempting for those inclined to authoritarianism to think that these developments mean they can have their cake and eat it too — stifle free speech, crush civil society, violate religious freedoms and still enjoy access to global markets and bilateral support when needed.
But we should not forget that the world engages in a post-colonial double standard. Places like Saudi Arabia that offer something — money, to be precise — will get a free pass, while places like Pakistan, perceived only to offer terrorism and instability, will be held to old-fashioned high standards that countries like the UK preach, but practise with declining frequency.
Growing cooperation with China, which has never had a double standard on these issues, may lead Pakistan to think that others too will be willing to overlook worrying trends, particularly enforced disappearances and the appalling treatment of religious minorities. But this will lead us to an all-eggs-in-one-basket foreign policy approach, which is never a sensible option.
Ultimately, the impetus to create a just and tolerant society has to come from within. People have to believe their freedom and safety is intrinsically connected with that of their compatriots. Do unto others what you would have them do unto you. Pakistan right now is overpopulated by groups who believe that they are ‘right’ and must ‘win’, failing to recognise the multiplicity of others who feel the same way. Moreover, we are a resource-strapped society, competing over water, energy, housing, employment, healthcare. We seem unlikely to generate the internal will to improve our human rights record, and so it is unfortunate to realise that external drivers in this context will not be forthcoming either.
The writer is a freelance journalist.
Published in Dawn, March 12th, 2018