In 2019, while gunning for the support of his fellow Democrats in the race to be the party’s presidential candidate, Joe Biden was clear about the way his administration would deal with Saudi Arabia.

Saying that the authoritarian state needed to “pay the price” for human rights violations, he vowed not only to end arms sales to the country, but to make them “the pariah that they are”.

Three weeks ago, President Joe Biden seemed to make good on this promise, ending the sale of US arms to Saudi Arabia and withdrawing support for the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen.

However, with this week’s publication of a US intelligence report implicating Saudi Arabia’s Muhammed Bin Salman in the murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi, the so-called ‘pariah’ state became a strategic partner once more. As US sanctions against minor officials left the Saudi crown prince untouched, it seemed that the price of a state-backed assassination was not to be paid by the man who gave the order.

Some of Biden’s colleagues have argued that this restraint is justified by the need to counter Iranian influence in the region. The enemy of my enemy is my friend, in other words. Or, to paraphrase Franklin D Roosevelt’s unprintable description of another US-backed dictator: “He may be a scumbag, but at least he’s our scumbag.”

As Roosevelt’s supposed comments show, Biden is not the only US president to have wrestled with this dilemma. Nor is the US the only liberal democracy to proclaim its commitment to freedom of expression while allying with human-rights abusers.

The British government’s approach

Appointing Fiona Bruce MP as the UK’s new envoy for freedom of religion or belief at the end of last year, the government reiterated its commitment to “protecting the inalienable right to freedom of religion and belief, at home and around the world”.

Yet since 2015, the UK government has licensed £1.4 billion pounds of arms deals to countries that are among the most dangerous places to be a Christian. While Biden has had the courage to end US arms sales to the Saudis, Britain continues to ply the country with weapons.

It’s true that these arms won’t necessarily be used to suppress religious freedom. But by selling weapons to a country’s army or police force, we express our confidence in their ability to uphold law and order. How can it be right to offer this political legitimacy to countries that use law and order to persecute religious minorities? We cannot claim to stand with the persecuted while arming their persecutors.

The British government claims that this close relationship allows them to raise human rights concerns with their authoritarian allies. However, given the fact that the UK lobbied for Saudi Arabia to be given a seat on the UN Human Rights Council, it is difficult to take this argument seriously. 

I have no doubt that politicians from across the spectrum, including those in government, have used their political influence to challenge those who suppress religious freedom, whether in public or in private.

But, too often, those that stand up for religious freedom fail to acknowledge that arms deals, like the rest of the political support the West offers to its tyrants of choice, stabilise and legitimise regimes that execute apostates and blasphemers.

Those that stand up for religious freedom fail to acknowledge that arms deals stabilise and legitimise regimes that execute apostates 

It hasn’t always been this way. In the general election of 1880, William Gladstone’s Liberals argued that it was morally wrong for Britain to support the Ottoman Empire, a country that was massacring Christians at the time. He won the election and British foreign policy changed as a result.

True, times have changed. Gladstone saw the conflict through the prism of Christendom. Today, we would be better advised to think of foreign policy in terms of human rights, standing up for any religious minority that is being persecuted. 

But Gladstone’s example offers an important lesson. You cannot siphon off freedom of belief into one discrete area of foreign policy while the rest of your foreign policy is decided by economic and political self-interest.

Yet that is exactly what the government, as well as individual politicians and we, the voters, do. This has to change. 

Evan John works as a policy advisor for a charity in London

Premier Christianity is committed to publishing a variety of opinion pieces from across the UK Church. The views expressed on our blog do not necessarily represent those of the publisher.