Cameron scuppers £5.9m Saudi prison deal

The government has scrapped a controversial deal to provide training for Saudi Arabia’s prison service. Matthew Partridge reports.


Trade-hungry ministers are risking their "sense of British values"

This week the government scrapped a controversial £5.9m deal to provide training for Saudi Arabia's prison service. The bid part of a now-defunct Ministry of Justice project aimed at selling "expert" services to foreign governments was "strongly opposed" by Michael Gove, who became justice secretary in May, notes Kate Allen in the Financial Times.

It had also been criticised by Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. Supporters (including the home secretary, Theresa May, and the foreign secretary, Philip Hammond, pictured) had argued that the deal, proposed by Gove's predecessor Chris Grayling, would "cement Britain's business relationship with Saudi Arabia". But in the end, as news broke separately of a British grandfather facing 350 lashes in Saudi for being caught with homemade wine,David Cameron overruled his colleagues.

Like it or not, "we have to deal with regimes that make no pretence to be democratic or to subscribe to Western notions of what constitutes human rights or proportionate justice", argues The Daily Telegraph. Despite its many shortcomings, Saudi Arabia "has been a crucial ally in the Gulf... and sustained many thousands of jobs in the defence industry". Even Gove accepts that. Changing policy to suit short-term concerns "is neither ethical nor pragmatic, merely opportunistic".

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Trade has "a liberalising nudge effect' in reducing poverty and keeping lines open to those who one day may foster change in a country", agrees The Guardian's Simon Jenkins. But if we're prepared to cut a deal with Riyadh, "why then do we refuse to trade with Russia, Iran, Burma and other states with which we also claim to have human rights issues'? Such double standards are hypocrisy."Cancelling this deal was the right thing to do, but we're still "up to our necks" in Saudi Arabia, says The Independent'sJane Merrick. "British and Saudi companies have more than 200 joint ventures worth £13bn" and leaked cables have revealed that the two "worked together to get each other's country a seat on the UN Human Rights Council".

Yet these "sordid" attempts to cosy up to the Saudis may be unnecessary, says John Barclay in the Daily Mail. Its "royal family is more vulnerable than ever". As well as being embroiled in a costly war in Yemen, its Syrian policy has been "scuppered" by "Russia's dramatic intervention". Meanwhile, the slide in oil prices has forced "massive" public spending cuts. With King Salman "reportedly on his deathbed", Britain can make it clear that "the Saudis do not have us pinned over an oil barrel".

Saudi is far from the only dubiousregime our government has wooed, says Rachel Sylvester in The Times. "Nervousness is growing about the chancellor's determination to drum up business in China", for example, with civil servants warning that "national security could be compromised if large chunks of British infrastructure are sold off to a potentially hostile power". While "it is always difficult to balance money and morality in foreign policy... there is more to the national interest than GDP". Trade-hungry ministers and diplomats are at risk of losing "their sense of British values".

Dr Matthew Partridge

Matthew graduated from the University of Durham in 2004; he then gained an MSc, followed by a PhD at the London School of Economics.

He has previously written for a wide range of publications, including the Guardian and the Economist, and also helped to run a newsletter on terrorism. He has spent time at Lehman Brothers, Citigroup and the consultancy Lombard Street Research.

Matthew is the author of Superinvestors: Lessons from the greatest investors in history, published by Harriman House, which has been translated into several languages. His second book, Investing Explained: The Accessible Guide to Building an Investment Portfolio, is published by Kogan Page.

As senior writer, he writes the shares and politics & economics pages, as well as weekly Blowing It and Great Frauds in History columns He also writes a fortnightly reviews page and trading tips, as well as regular cover stories and multi-page investment focus features.

Follow Matthew on Twitter: @DrMatthewPartri