David Cameron has been in Dubai for the past couple of days, seeking to strengthen commercial and security ties with the government of the United Arab Emirates. From the UAE he will fly on to Saudi Arabia for talks at a time of great unease between the two states. The Saudis have long been an important Western ally in the Middle East, providing logistical support for American and British security operations in the region, shared intelligence on terrorism and lucrative commercial contracts with Western companies.
The news that the British government is to launch a parliamentary enquiry into its relations with Saudi Arabia has unsurprisingly angered the Middle Eastern kingdom. The Foreign Affairs Committee (FAC) has argued that the repression shown by the Saudi government (and its Bahraini counterpart) towards democratic agitators in their own country is unacceptable and must be publicly criticised by the British government to avoid claims of hypocrisy from other authoritarian states such as Iran whose administration Britain regularly castigates for its human rights abuses.
Quite frankly, who cares what the Iranians think? Yes, the British stance may be hypocritical, but the Iranians are pariahs whose concerns are given ear by few other countries. Interfering in the affairs of other states will serve Britain little use in the coming years. With a badly stalled economy, rich Middle Eastern kingdoms offer potentially rewarding trade deals, such as the purchase of RAF Tycoons and British consultancy expertise. It is extremely difficult to stand idly by whilst regimes around the world subject their populace to untold oppression but interference in one sets a dangerous precedent. For example, why bomb Libya and not Syria? Why invade Iraq and not Zimbabwe? Not only Britain’s choice, of course, but there has been far less agitation for uprooting Assad or Mugabe than there was for Gaddafi.
Being a hypocritical nation that is selective of its allies and enemies alike is what made Great Britain a world power in the 19th century. It cannot claim to be that anymore and, like so many developed nations stuck in neutral, its leaders can no longer be so fussy. Nor can they preach as they once did. It is very easy to condemn the internal situation of another nation without looking introspectively at one’s own standards. There are still those living in poverty in Britain, those subjected to sexual abuse at the hands of people in power, ethnic minorities ostracised, women prevented from full equality in the workplace.
Striving for perfection is naive and unattainable. Looking after one’s own nation is what is important for any government. For that, its leaders must make their beds with those they may ideally not wish to.