British opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn sat down Monday night with Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, the Emir of Qatar. The meeting, which occurred the night before the Qatari Emir met with Prime Minister Theresa May and inaugurated the UK-Qatar Joint Typhoon Squadron, took on particular significance in the wake of Corbyn’s high-profile refusal to meet with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (popularly known as MBS) when he came to the UK in March.
Some commentators, particularly in the Emirati media, questioned why Corbyn would make such a distinction between the two youthful Gulf leaders. Corbyn himself, however, explained in no uncertain terms why he refused to join in rolling out the red carpet for bin Salman.
In the lead up to MBS’s visit to Britain, the Labour leader sharply criticized Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen. In a dramatic session of Prime Minister’s Questions, Corbyn emphasized the staggering humanitarian cost of the civil war in Yemen, which has been raging since 2015 and is considered the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.
370 children were killed in 2017 by Saudi airstrikes, one in three of which hit civilian sites and which a U.N. panel believes may have violated humanitarian law. The Saudi intervention has helped worsen a conflict that has hit children particularly hard. Every ten minutes, a Yemeni child dies of preventable causes directly attributable to the fighting. Last year, more than one million Yemenis became infected with cholera in the worst epidemic since records began. The country suffered its first outbreak of diphtheria in 35 years.
Corbyn noted that getting aid into Yemen to help civilians has become much more difficult following a comprehensive Saudi blockade on Yemen’s air, sea, and land borders. Theresa May instead reacted to the bin Salman visit by arguing that “engagement was the only way to have influence over the Saudis”. She also suggested she had convinced the Crown Prince to real low the flow of humanitarian aid through one of Yemen’s ports in an earlier meeting.
Sadly, the Saudis have largely been deaf to pressure from their British and other allies regarding the human rights impact of their operations. In a scathing exchange in the House of Commons, shadow foreign secretary Emily Thornberry lambasted this “bowing and scraping” to bin Salman, whom she called the ‘architect’ of the Yemen crisis. Thornberry also recalled the rumours that Lebanese prime minister Saad Hariri had been beaten for hours by Saudi police under MBS’s orders, before being forced to resign.
As such, Corbyn’s refusal to meet with MBS was a perfectly reasonable response both to Saudi Arabia’s laundry list of human rights violations. Shunning the Saudi prince also dovetails nicely with Corbyn’s own political leanings. Snubbing bin Salman offered Corbyn to take a stand on human rights—a cause he has long championed—and argue against the UK selling arms to Saudi Arabia, which fits in neatly with his pacifist and non-interventionist beliefs.
Qatar, in some ways, also happens to be the kind of underdog Corbyn loves to champion. The term ‘underdog’ might seem incongruous for the world’s richest country per capita, but for the last year, Qatar has been dealing with its own Saudi-led economic and physical blockade. Facing hostility from four of its Gulf neighbours, Qatar has endeavoured to use this isolation as a catalyst to develop new trade relationships and become more self-sufficient.
The conflict has nevertheless had its effects, throwing Qatari students studying abroad into limbo and separating thousands of families. The International Court of Justice (ICJ) just ruled that this move was discriminatory and violated international law. Jeremy Corbyn—who condemned at length the immorality of families being split up at the U.S. border—likely agreed with the Court.
Corbyn, who might still become prime minister, had another important reason to meet with the Qatari emir. The peninsula is one of the more reliable partners in an increasingly unstable region. For all Corbyn’s commitment to non-interventionism, the fact remains Qatar’s Al-Udeid Air Base has been a vital asset for American and British counterterrorism operations in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. Plans are currently being drawn up for a major expansion of the base.
This military cooperation between Qatar and the UK was a centrepiece of the emir’s visit to London. In his own meeting with the Qatari leader, British Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson emphasized Qatar is the only nation with which the UK has formed a joint military squadron since WWII, underlining that the combined force “requires a level of trust, both from our long-shared history and our commitment to a shared future”. Meanwhile, Theresa May and the emir agreed to deepen law enforcement cooperation, overseeing the signing of a letter of intent to share intelligence on terrorism and financial crime.
May was partly right when she suggested that engagement with foreign leaders is an important part of promoting British interests. In fact, it was a message Labour MP Mike Gapes reiterated when discussing Corbyn’s choice to meet with the Qatari emir: “It is important that senior political figures in opposition meet with important foreign leaders, to become better informed and to discuss issues of national concern”. Corbyn, however, is clear that this maxim only extends to leaders with a base level of respect for human rights.