Saudi Arabia is a monarchy that has allowed no political representation and few freedoms for Saudis for almost 100 years. But the human rights situation has significantly deteriorated since the accession of King Salman to the throne and his son Muhammad bin Salman’s rise to crown prince in the middle of the last decade. While they have opened the country to the West in a bid to attract foreign direct investment and embarked on a global public relations campaign, they have centralised state power to an unprecedented degree and brutally cracked down on anyone critical of the government. Common human rights violations range from the suppression of freedom of opinion and expression, and of freedom of assembly and association, to the use of the death penalty for non-violent crimes and against minors. They include violations of international humanitarian law in Yemen, of women’s rights, migrants’ rights, minority rights, fair trial rights, and more.
To address these multiple and highly extensive shortcomings, much more is needed than the superficial reforms the Saudi authorities are currently parading. At the root of many human rights violations lies a severely flawed legal framework. The country has no constitution or criminal code, while other laws such as the cyber crime law and the anti-terrorism law are so vaguely formulated that they allow for the prosecution of peaceful activists. Deep structural reform is crucial in the long run, but other easily implemented first steps can take place right now, such as the immediate release of all human rights defenders and prisoners of conscience.
States with strong economic ties to Saudi Arabia, including France and the United Kingdom, tend to be quieter on human rights abuses there. States with few or no economic relations are often more vocal and outspoken, with countries such as Iceland and Denmark leading initiatives at the United Nations. European politicians often argue that they regularly engage the Saudi authorities in bilateral conversations on human rights, but the present author’s work has time and again shown that the human rights situation in the country does not improve as a result of closed-door meetings. It improves only when Saudi Arabia experiences international public pressure.
After the first joint statement by 36 UN member states at the UN Human Rights Council in March 2019, the Saudi authorities temporarily released several women human rights defenders. Denmark led the third of three joint statements on Saudi Arabia, most of which were supported by the majority of EU countries. Several resolutions by the European Parliament have also helped create momentum. Following mounting international attention and pressure during Saudi Arabia’s G20 presidency, including the decision by the mayors of Paris, London, New York, and Los Angeles to boycott the G20 “Urban Twenty” meeting, Saudi Arabia made further concessions. These included reduced prison sentences for certain offences involving children, and an order by the public prosecutor to review death sentences imposed on three people accused of committing terrorism crimes when they were minors, and whose confessions were coerced. Parliamentarians in some EU countries have also taken up the cases of certain detained human rights defenders. This can be helpful, such as when two members of the Bundestag took on the sponsorship of Loujain al-Hathloul, who was later released from prison on probation, and Israa al-Ghomgham, whose sentence was decreased.
Some European countries – such as Germany, Denmark, the Netherlands, Finland, Italy, and Belgium – temporarily suspended their arms sales to Saudi Arabia in the aftermath of the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October 2018. Yet, these decisions often contain loopholes that allow exceptions; for example, for the export of jointly produced European weapons such as the Eurofighter; or for states to continue to sell weapons to other members of the Saudi-led military coalition active in the war in Yemen, including the United Arab Emirates and Egypt. To stop the humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen and the international persecution of rights advocates as recently highlighted in the NSO Group Pegasus spyware scandal, European states should establish an immediate moratorium on all arms sales and exports of surveillance technology to Saudi Arabia.
The European Union and its member states are an important partner for Saudi Arabia and therefore have significant leverage. They should publicly voice human rights concerns more and should prioritise them over business relations. This will serve their long-term interests by creating a more stable Saudi Arabia where the rule of law governs. On the multilateral level, EU states should lead on and endorse a resolution at the UN Human Rights Council to establish a monitoring and reporting mechanism for Saudi Arabia. Meanwhile, private dialogue on human rights needs to be more accountable. The EU recently held its first ever EU-Saudi Arabia Human Rights Dialogue, in which it raised the death penalty, cases of human rights defenders, and women’s rights. In the future, for this to have impact, it will be important to set clear benchmarks that allow for an independent assessment of real progress made. This will give European stakeholders and civil society the possibility to keep up international pressure.
Yahya Ibrahim Assiri is a trustee at ALQST, an independent NGO that he founded in 2014 for the purpose of defending and promoting human rights in Saudi Arabia. He is also the secretary-general of the National Assembly Party (NAAS).