U.K. Drops Saudi Prison Deal After Reported Cabinet Rift

The U.K. withdrew its bid for a training contract with Saudi Arabia’s prison service after Prime Minister David Cameron’s cabinet was reported to have split over the human-rights implications.

Opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn highlighted the bid in a speech to his Labour Party’s conference last month after the government said in a statement on Sept. 9 that pulling out would be “detrimental to Her Majesty’s government’s wider interests.” Justice Secretary Michael Gove opposed the contract while Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond backed it, The Times newspaper reported.

“The government has decided it won’t be proceeding with the bid,” Prime Minister David Cameron’s spokeswoman, Helen Bower, told reporters in London Tuesday, adding that there’s no financial penalty for Britain. “We will continue to engage and work with the Saudis on human-rights issues, on judicial reform and continue to raise concerns where we have them.”

Just Solutions International, a commercial unit of the Home Office, bid last year for the contract, reported by The Times to be valued at 5.9 million pounds ($9 million), to provide a “training needs analysis” for the Saudi prison service. JSI was closed down by Gove last month but planned to continue with the Saudi bid.

Lashing Sentence

Pressure mounted to abandon the deal after Corbyn linked it to the sentencing to death in Saudi Arabia by beheading and crucifixion of an anti-government protester. British media have also reported the case of Karl Andree, a 74-year-old Briton facing 350 lashes in the kingdom for breaking alcohol laws.

Gove and Hammond clashed over whether it was right for Britain to be supporting the prisons system in a country over which there are human-rights concerns, The Times reported, without saying where it got the information. Hammond accused Gove of being naive and argued that Britain would appear an unreliable ally if it pulled out, the newspaper said.

Gove told the House of Commons later Tuesday that human rights in Saudi Arabia need to be balanced against its support in the fight against terrorism.

“It’s important to bear in mind that there’s security cooperation between Britain and Saudi Arabia that has saved British lives,” he told lawmakers. “The most effective way of assuring that human-rights progress can be made in Saudi Arabia is if the Foreign Office is allowed to continue its diplomatic work. Constructive engagement with countries like Saudi Arabia is the wisest course.”

‘Terrible Contract’

Corbyn, who opposed U.K. involvement in the bombing of Libya and the war in Iraq, questioned Britain’s relationships with governments such as Saudi Arabia’s and called on Cameron to commit to promoting human rights.

“David Cameron has been shamed into a U-turn on this terrible contract, but why on earth was it set up in the first place?” Corbyn said in an e-mailed statement. “We should be sending a strong message to repressive regimes that the U.K. is a beacon for human rights and that this contract bid is unacceptable in the 21st century, and would damage Britain’s standing in the world.”

Cameron was writing to the Saudi authorities on Tuesday to raise his concerns about the Andree case, Bower told reporters.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.