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Saudi Arabia and the UK: Jeremy Hunt is not telling the truth about arms sales

It is impossible to stand up for Saudi Arabia and human rights at the same time. It is no wonder that the Foreign Office gets dragged into persistent habits of deceit

British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt is a big improvement on his predecessor, Boris Johnson. He has spoken up for journalists whose lives are threatened, and engaged with human rights issues. 

After the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, he put Johnson to shame, ending the slavish British support for the regime in Saudi Arabia.

But he also suffers from some of the same weaknesses as Johnson. There is the identical failure to match rhetoric with action, and in some respects, he is worse - he has done even less than Johnson to confront the dishonesty and double standards that are too often the hallmarks of the British Foreign Office.

A humbling moment

To his credit, one of Johnson’s first actions was to challenge the blatant falsehood told by his predecessor, Philip Hammond, to MPs that Britain had judged there was “no evidence” of Saudi Arabia violating international humanitarian law in Yemen.

Johnson immediately ordered his predecessor's untrue statement to be corrected. In a humbling moment for Hammond, the Foreign Office put out a statement making clear that his remark had been false.

Hunt would be well-advised to act quickly and tell the truth in the Commons. Otherwise, he will be dragged into a moral morass from which he will find it hard to extract himself

Unfortunately, Hunt has not followed Johnson’s example when it comes to confronting the Foreign Office’s congenital tendency to deceive. A very troubling recent example proves this. 

In the aftermath of Khashoggi’s death, Hunt made a statement in the House of Commons condemning the killing. He spoke powerfully and well. However, during questioning from shadow foreign secretary Emily Thornberry, he said that British controls on the export of arms were “strengthened under the Conservative-led coalition in 2014”. This was nonsense. 

Labour MP Lloyd Russell-Moyle rightly pressed him on the matter. Hunt replied that he was telling the House what he had been informed of in his briefing notes by the Foreign Office, and would write to Russell-Moyle to explain his statement. 

So far, so good. The letter Hunt sent to Russell-Moyle, however, was hopeless, referencing a written statement from March 2014 that updated arms export licensing criteria. This was not the same as strengthening controls. 

Arms exports

The truth appears to be the opposite of what Hunt claimed. The Committees on Arms Export Control, the body that scrutinises arms exports, concluded that the 2014 changes “represent a substantive weakening of the UK's arms export controls”. 

In October 2014, Sir John Stanley, a former Conservative politician and chair of the Committees on Arms Export Control, told parliament that the government had assumed a “more relaxed approach to arms exports that could be used for internal repression”.

In light of this, Russell-Moyle has repeated his invitation for Hunt to correct the record in the House or to further explain his opinion that arms controls were strengthened. There, the matter rests. 

Rubble of a building reportedly destroyed in Saudi-led coalition air strikes in Sanaa is pictured on 5 September (AFP)

I have examined the evidence. There is only one conclusion: Hunt needs to come to the Commons and correct the record. By not doing so, he is in serious breach of Commons codes. Indeed, the ministerial code states: “It is of paramount importance that ministers give accurate and truthful information to Parliament, correcting any inadvertent error at the earliest opportunity.”

Hunt has not done that. His false statement now hangs on the Commons record. However, last night a spokesperson for the Foreign Office told Middle East Eye that it continued to insist that the criteria for arms deals had been strengthened in 2014. The full statement reads as follows:

“In 2014 the government added to and updated the text of the Consolidated EU and National Arms Export Licensing Criteria to include a number of changes. These included an update to the list of international obligations and commitments and an explicit reference to International Humanitarian Law. In addition to this was the inclusion of a new gender-based violence clause contained within Criterion Two, strengthening the Government’s efforts to tackle violence based on gender across the world, as a result of the UK’s signature to the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT).

“The Government has repeatedly made clear it did not accept the interpretation of the Committees on Arms Export Controls that the changes made to the wording of the Consolidated Criteria was in any sense a weakening of the UK’s export controls.”

I am a qualified admirer of Hunt, having known him for approximately a decade, ever since he emerged as a rising figure in David Cameron’s opposition ministerial team during the Blair years. As I wrote in Middle East Eye when he was appointed foreign secretary, I believe he could be a future prime minister.

Puzzling conduct

Having followed his career when he was health secretary, I am especially puzzled by Hunt’s conduct. I had many conversations with him in that post and noted one unusual feature of his dealings with officials in the health department: it seems he never believed a word they said and was distrustful of their motives.

Other health secretaries had, without exception, sought to identify their fortunes with the National Health Service (NHS). Hunt, by contrast, positioned himself as a detached outsider, brought in to sort things out. He spoke of NHS consultants with a marked lack of reverence.

Unlike every one of his predecessors, Hunt always spoke about the NHS in the third person. This was one of the reasons why doctors disliked him. It also made him a better health secretary.

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Hunt has changed his approach to management at the Foreign Office. He treats his officials with a reverence he never granted to doctors or health administrators. He identifies himself with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in a way that he never did with the NHS. This might well explain why he has left unchallenged the misleading nonsense put in front of him by Foreign Office officials.

And this is no unique incident. The Foreign Office, as Mark Curtis recently wrote in MEE, can never be trusted when it comes to Britain’s shadowy role in politics in the Middle East.

History of misleading statements

It is also important to note that this is by no means the first time foreign secretaries have made misleading statements about Saudi Arabia.

There is a reason for this duplicity. On the one hand, Britain regards Saudi Arabia as its closest ally in the Middle East, apart from Israel.

On the other hand, it is the central contention of British foreign policy that it supports human rights. The two positions contradict one another; it is impossible to stand up for Saudi Arabia and human rights at the same time. It is no wonder that the Foreign Office gets dragged into persistent habits of deceit. 

Hunt would be well-advised to act quickly and tell the truth in the Commons. Otherwise, he will be dragged into a moral morass from which he will find it hard to extract himself. 

Peter Oborne won best commentary/blogging in 2017 and was named freelancer of the year in 2016 at the Online Media Awards for articles he wrote for Middle East Eye. He also was British Press Awards Columnist of the Year 2013. He resigned as chief political columnist of the Daily Telegraph in 2015. His books include The Triumph of the Political Class, The Rise of Political Lying, and Why the West is Wrong about Nuclear Iran.

- Additional reporting by Jan Westad

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt arrives for the weekly cabinet meeting at 10 Downing Street in London on 15 January (AFP)