Kawczynski: British media getting it wrong on Saudi Arabia
LONDON - Engagement is the watchword for MP Daniel Kawczynski, famously, or perhaps infamously, one of the most pro- Saudi British parliamentarians in recent history.
A member of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee and chairman of the All Party Committee on Saudi Arabia, Kawczynski has consistently taken positions in support of the kingdom. Speaking to The Arab Weekly in his office in Westminster, he acknowledged the criticism he has received for his pro-Saudi stances but said this would not stop him from speaking out.
“I think it’s very fashionable to be anti-Saudi. A lot of politicians get a lot of accolades for denigrating Saudi Arabia and challenging the way they do things but my concern is British national strategic interests. We have a very longstanding relationship with Saudi Arabia and a huge amount of cooperation in terms of energy, industry and jobs,” said Kawczynski, a member of the ruling Conservative party.
“We also cooperate a great deal in terms of counterterrorism. British lives have been saved because of the information that Saudi Arabia has given us.”
That message is not one that the British media is interested in hearing, he said, pointing to the coverage of the January 2nd execution of 47 Saudi nationals convicted on terror-related charges as an example, with media furore swirling almost exclusively around just one name: Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr.
“What is wrong is how lazy the British media are in terms of not challenging, probing and scrutinising the court process and the Saudi judiciary system as to why this man was actually put to death,” Kawczynski said.
He acknowledges that Saudi Arabia could do a better job of getting its message out, saying: “I hope, for their sake, they will be more proactive in engaging with the media to explain why Nimr al-Nimr was put to death even if it means releasing the transcripts of the court proceedings… I think that is eminently sensible.”
Nimr was executed along with 46 other Saudis, most of them al-Qaeda members convicted on terrorism-related charges. Nimr had been found guilty of a number of terrorism-related allegations, including instigating sedition. He was arrested after firing on police.
“I think they even actually need help,” Kawczynski said. “What they need is a proper public relations company to proactively engage on their behalf to the media because at the moment their message is not getting across.”
The issue goes beyond UK-Saudi relations to encompass a Middle East that is more chaotic and divided than at any other time in recent years, with Saudi Arabia and Iran in the midst of a region-wide proxy war and the spectre of the Islamic State (ISIS) rising.
“I think relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran are the worst they have been in the last 25 years. And they are getting worse,” Kawczynski said.
He seemed to tacitly acknowledge that much of the fault lies with Iran, which Saudi Arabia accuses of fomenting unrest in the Middle East through its support of Houthi rebels in Yemen, Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Assad regime in Syria.
The P5+1 nuclear deal with Iran has been roundly praised internationally but Saudi Arabia and Gulf Arab states remain sceptical of Iran’s intentions. Kawczynski concedes that it was ill-advised not to involve the Saudis in the P5+1 talks.
“I think that was a big mistake because the discussions with the Iranians focused primarily on the nuclear issue and there were no assurances given, nor sought, to my knowledge, that as part of this agreement to bring Iran in from the cold that they would stop funding terrorist organisations,” he said.
“The Saudis have been very good allies to us but at the last minute we just ignored their plea [to participate in the talks] and got this agreement with Iran while Iran is continuing to create instability in the region. That’s wrong.”
Using the new UK government designation and Arabic acronym for ISIS, he said this is one area in which Saudi Arabia and Iran can cooperate, even amid deep suspicions and infighting elsewhere.
“Daesh poses just as much a threat to Iran as it does to Saudi Arabia. It is in both countries’ interests to set their differences aside and at least in the interim, in the short term, collaborate on helping to eliminate this mutual threat,” he said.
Kawczynski says there is room, even among the latest diplomatic crisis, to manoeuvre.
“If we can get Saudi Arabia and Iran around the same table to come to some sort of understanding, which is sustainable, this will benefit not just those two countries but the world,” he said.
“It would be very difficult. The talks would be tortuous and they would be prolonged and they would stall and there would be a lot of tension, concern, fear and exasperation, maybe over weeks, months or years… But I do know that if we don’t attempt this, then we will be letting the next generation down and the problems that exist at the moment would continue and be exasperated.”
Perhaps Kawczynski, the only parliamentarian born under Communism (he was born in Warsaw, under the Polish People’s Republic), has a unique view and belief in the power of diplomacy.
“We’re not reinventing the wheel. This is something that has happened since modern diplomacy has been devised and I’m sure a formula acceptable to both Riyadh and Tehran could be facilitated,” he said.
“Senior politicians from both countries have expressed a willingness to engage with their counterparts. Once they finish insulting the other side, they admit that they would be prepared to sit down and negotiate. Let’s put that to the test.”