All you despots out there – beware! The UK Government is coming for you. In its new post-Brexit sanctions regime, the UK is taking action against those behind the most “notorious” human rights abuses in the world, with the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018 named as one of those acts of brutality to be targeted for the freezing of UK assets and banning entry to the country.
So surely we can expect that Saudi ruler Prince Mohammed Bin Salman will be on the top of the list, after being named by both the UN and the CIA as the man behind Khashoggi’s brutal killing? Maybe not. After all if one were to sanction Saudi Arabia’s despot, how would you justify the UK’s role in training up its airforce to bomb Yemen, in a military campaign which has caused one of the worst humanitarian disasters since the second world war? Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab’s claim that he was targeting the “thugs of despots and henchmen of dictators” might be turned back on his own government, which has licensed the sale of arms to Bin Salman’s regime worth billions to BAE Systems and co, a decision has been ruled unlawful by a British court.
No one can beat Britain in the hypocrisy stakes, but nonetheless it is worthy of note that Raab’s sanctions list does include 20 Saudi nationals, including some important figures like the deputy intelligence chief Ahmed Al-Assiri, in what is a country the UK is closely allied with. It might make Bin Salman think twice about his plans to purchase Newcastle United football club, a bid which has been under consideration for 14 weeks by the Premier League, who are still trying to work out if a murderous regime passes its ‘fit and proper owner’ test.
This gets at what the real intention will be behind the sanctions list: to use the fact that the UK, via the City of London and its network of offshore tax havens, is a key country for despots and their henchmen worldwide to channel their money through, often ending up in a big property next to the Thames. Raab told the FT that the new powers will allow the UK to target specific individuals and stop them from “entering the UK, channelling money through our banks and profiting from our economy.” Expect the sanction list to be used very discriminately, based on which government the UK is seeking to apply pressure on at any given time. The BBC’s James Lansdale reports that “MPs are keen to see some Chinese names on the list”, as if to make the point that it is a thinly disguised tool of British geo-political influence.
Inevitably, Russian officials top the sanctions list, with Vladimir Putin’s regime quickly responding by describing it as “pointless” and threatening retaliation measures. This is risky territory for the Tories, however. The Conservative party has received a lot of money from ex-Russian oligarchs who have made their home in London, with Open Democracy revealing substantial donations in 2019 from the wife of a former Russian finance minister and a former arms tycoon. New Century Media, set-up by former Ulster Unionist MP David Burnside, was paid by the Kremlin to promote a “positive image” of Russia in the UK in 2013, and arranged a meeting between Putin’s former Judo partner and then Prime Minister David Cameron at a Tory fundraising event. The dangerous truth for the Tories is that they drink from the same well that they are clamping down on.
It makes sense for the UK state to maximise where it has most leverage in the world post-Brexit, with the attraction of London as the world’s number one global financial centre being an obvious weapon. The sanctions list should be seen in that context. But that shouldn’t stop us from pointing out that it is dripping in hypocrisy. When it comes to sanctioning the master-mind’s of human rights abuses, the UK should start by looking closer to home.
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