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Submission to inquiry on Saudi Arabia

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Submissions from IHRC for inquiry into the FCO's foreign policy towards Saudi Arabia

IHRC was set up in 1997.  Further information about IHRC here. Its research and publications on Saudi Arabia include background studies, briefings and country reports, including:

Saudi Arabia’s Political Prisoners, Towards a Third Decade of Silence, 2011

  1. The Arab Spring has largely bypassed Saudi Arabia. Fearing the winds of change raging around the region the regime has battened down the hatches and continues to resist growing demands for political and social reform.
  2. The ruling al-Saud family continues to exercise absolute rule in the kingdom with little criticism from the international community. To the contrary it remains insulated from international pressure by virtue of its position as the west’s biggest oil supplier. Ensuring Saudi citizens and residents enjoy basic human rights is clearly of less concern to the international community than the uninterrupted flow of oil from Riyadh.
  3. Saudi Arabia’s initial response to the Arab Spring speaks volumes about its perception of the uprisings as a threat to its own long-held power. Instead of embracing the new Zeitgeist, it rushed to intensify internal repression of dissent to pre-empt any internal mass movement from arising. Freedom of expression and association bore the brunt of the government attack.
  4. In February 2011, the government arrested five clerics and opposition activists who had announced the formation of the country’s first ever political party. The new “Umma” party had called on its website for the holding of elections, more transparency in government decisions and an independent judiciary. The arrests recalled the detention in 2007 of a group of activists who had demanded a constitutional monarchy. Most of them are still detained.
  5. In April 2011 King Abdullah amended the 2000 Press and Publications Law to make illegal any speech that "contradicts rulings of the Islamic Sharia [law] or regulations in force," or "call[s] for disturbing the country's security, or its public order, or … caus[es] sectarianism or … damage[s] public affairs in the country." The new restrictions also included a prohibition on damaging the reputation of the chief mufti, members of the Council of Senior Religious Scholars, or any other government official or government institution. The law also covers electronic publications and significantly curtails the ability of bloggers to write about political events.
  6. More recently, the government put on trial Mohammad Fahad al-Qahtani, an economics professor and one of the co founders of the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association, on charges relating to his human rights activities. The charges included “breaking allegiance to the ruler”, accusing the judiciary of allowing confessions extracted under torture, describing Saudi Arabia as a police state and turning international organisations against the kingdom. According to the Arab human rights group Alkarama, Al-Qahtani was also convicted of sending “false information presented as facts” to the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention. Al-Qahtani’s fellow co-founder Mohammed al-Bejadi had already received a four-year jail term in April 2012 after being convicted of similar charges.
  7. The issue of political prisoners is a pressing one. The Islamic Human Rights Commission (IHRC) believes that some 30,000 people are currently in detention as a result of their political views or activities. Many are imprisoned without trial or access to lawyers and torture is routine. According to the IHRC the issue of political prisoners is an “epidemic which has not spared any sector of Saudi society”. Even those simply calling for the government to end arbitrary detention and ensure fair trials have not been spared. In July 2011, Islamic law expert Dr Yusuf el-Ahmad was arrested for posting calls on Youtube for an end arbitrary detention and supporting the families of those wrongfully detained.
  8. Many of those detained without charge and/or tortured are members of the country’s minority Shia sect of Islam. Comprising about 10-15% of the total population they are concentrated in the east of the kingdom and have long complained of economic neglect and religious discrimination. With the dawn of the Arab Spring they were emboldened to renew calls for greater freedom, human rights and better living conditions. Peaceful protests, which broke out in the February 2011 in the Eastern Provinces demanding the release of nine Shia men detained without trial for over 13 years on suspicion of involvement in a 1996 armed attack on a US military facility in Khobar, were brutally put down. Scores of demonstrators were arrested. Since the beginning of 2011, over a dozen Shia have been killed by police. Majority Shia towns such as Awamiya which are seen as hotbeds of opposition remain saturated with Saudi police. Checkpoints dot the streets and armoured vehicles are a constant reminder of the state’s willingness to use force to put down any show of dissent. According to the Adala centre for Human Rights based in Qatif police have shot 71 protesters since 2011 and arrested over 700 people including children.
  9. The Saudi regime has also cracked down on public displays of the Shia branch of Islam by arresting people displaying Shia banners or slogans. Last September Saudi authorities razed a mosque associated with an outspoken cleric, Nimr al-Nimr, with a long history of criticising state excesses and discrimination against the Shia. Nimr was shot and arrested in July and charged with “instigating unrest” even though he has publicly called for resistance to the regime to be expressed in words rather than through violence.
  10. Women’s rights also continue to cause concern. Under Saudi Arabia’s male guardianship system in many cases many women cannot even access medical treatment without the permission of a brother, father or husband. The ban on females driving motor vehicles remains in force despite increasing defiance from women. In May 2011, Saudi authorities arrested Manal al-Sharif after she took to the wheel in a public display of resistance. Al-Sharif appeared in a video showing herself driving. She was subsequently charged with “tarnishing the kingdom’s reputation abroad” and “stirring up public opinion.” Police released al-Sharif from prison after she appealed to King Abdullah. Perhaps as a result of internal pressure from women, the King has pledged to allow women to vote in municipal elections from 2015 and also appoint them as full members of the Shura Council, an advisory body with limited powers including suggesting laws to the King.
  11. Foreign workers, the majority of whom offer a ready pool of cheap labour to Saudi employers, form the backbone of the domestic economy. Numbering 8 million in total they represent over half of the workforce. Yet they remain drastically underpaid, exploited and abused. They reside and operate in Saudi Arabia under a sponsorship system which is routinely abused by their employers to subject them to what Human Rights Watch calls “slavery-like conditions”. Passports are routinely confiscated, wages delayed or withheld, and forced labour commonplace. Female domestic workers are at the forefront of this abuse suffering forced confinement, food deprivation, and severe sexual, psychological and physical abuse.
  12. Despite the wide-ranging and numerous human rights concerns Britain has had little to say to the Saudi regime, which remains one of its most important regional allies. The silence sits uncomfortably with the British PM’s apparent embracing of the Arab Spring at the United Nations in September 2011. "As people in north Africa and the Middle East stand up and give voice to their hopes for more open and democratic societies, we have an opportunity – and I would say a responsibility – to help them,"? That responsibility would not seem to extend to Saudi Arabia, Britain’s biggest trading partner in the Arab world. In January of this year Cameron visited Saudi Arabia to “broaden and deepen” relations with the kingdom, despite its avowed opposition to the overthrow of regional dictators in Yemen, Egypt and Tunisia. Britain continues to be a major supplier of arms to Saudi Arabia and Cameron’s visit was intended to increase sales of the latest technology and weaponry. This despite questions by the Parliamentary Committee on Arms Control related to their end use; fears remain that some of the weapons might be used to crush dissent and civil unrest. The committee asked why, when there was unrest in the country in 2011, licences for a range of equipment had not been revoked. "Why does the UK believe that the assurances relating to end-use will not be breached?" the committee asked.
  13. The fact that the Saudi Arabian government has taken umbrage at this review of bilateral relations itself suggests that it is not prepared to brook any criticism of its human rights record, even from its allies. Indeed last October the BBC quoted unnamed Saudi officials as saying that Saudi Arabia was "insulted" by the review and that they were "re-evaluating their country's historic relations with Britain" and that "all options will be looked at".
  14. IHRC believes that Britain’s commercial ties with Saudi Arabia are important to the British economy and many jobs depend on the deal currently in place. But these ties should not prevent Britain from applying pressure on the Saudi government to improve human rights in the country. At the moment the balance is far too heavily weighted in favour of commerce.The IHRC recommends that the British government strives to strike a better balance between its trade relationship with Saudi Arabia and pressuring the government in Riyadh into human rights reforms. This should include publicly reminding Saudi politicians that the continued abuses in the kingdom are not acceptable and wherever possible making commercial deals contingent on measurable human rights progress.

Islamic Human Rights Commission, 19 November 2012.  For further information please contact farah@ihrc.org or call 020 8904 4222.

Also published on the Foreign Affairs Committee site, whcih can be found here

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