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The brutal murder of prominent Saudi critic and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi in October 2018 has thrust the issue of Saudi Arabian human rights back into the headlines. Despite a loudly heralded era of change under de facto ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), the country’s relationship with and respect for human rights remains complex.
Not all Saudis are Equal
Saudi Arabia is well known for being the world’s most gender-segregated nation, and gender issues are a key point of contention around human rights. The reversal in June 2018 of the country’s decades-long ban on women driving made international headlines and was hailed as a huge step in the right direction for women’s rights. However, the celebrations came too early. A litany of abuses continues to be reported. Starkest among them are male guardianship laws, which tie a woman to the principal man in her life – typically her father and then her husband or in some cases her son. This man has authority over a range of key decisions in her life, from allowing her to apply for a passport, get married and even exit prison. In 2017, King Salman ordered these rules to be relaxed to ensure all women had access to government services. However, no broader reform has come from this.
In May 2018, just weeks before the end of the driving ban, Saudi authorities arrested ten women’s rights activists who had long campaigned for the ban to be revoked. The arrests effectively put an end to the women’s rights movement. Two more women were arrested in August, sparking a diplomatic spat with Canada and resulting in Riyadh ordering home all its sponsored students in Canada.
The case of Samar Badawi, an award-winning rights activist, speaks to the wider human rights issue in Saudi.
Her work had previously seen her banned from travelling abroad and detained. The police reportedly targeted her for her close links to other prominent rights defenders, including her ex-husband Waleed Abu al-Khair, who is currently serving a 15-year prison sentence for rights activism.
Samar Badawi is the sister of Raif Badawi, a prominent Saudi blogger who found himself in the international spotlight when he was sentenced to ten years in prison and a public flogging for his critical views of the regime. Saudi courts have sentenced dozens of Shiite activists to death in the past five years. In August, a prosecutor requested the death sentence for a 29-year-old Shiite activist, Israa al-Ghomgham, for non-violent crimes, including ‘filming protests and publishing on social media’ and ‘attempting to inflame public opinion’.
Punishment from Times Past
Corporal punishment like flogging and capital punishment still feature in the Saudi penal code. Saudi Arabia remains one of the top killers of prisoners in the world, and there appears to be little appetite to change the harshest punishments. In the first four months of 2018, the kingdom beheaded some 48 prisoners in what human rights groups call a ‘notoriously unfair criminal justice system’. It is worth noting that since the 33-year-old MBS came to power, the rate of executions has risen steeply, with some 200 executions predicted for 2018.
The abuses touch all levels of society. In September 2017, around 20 clerics and intellectuals, among them prominent Muslim thinkers, were arrested, seemingly in a crackdown on dissent. The charges levelled against them included having ties with the Muslim Brotherhood – a charge that coincided with rising tensions between Saudi Arabia and Muslim Brotherhood ally Qatar. After nearly a year in detention, one of those arrested, Salman Odah, found himself facing the death penalty after daring to use his influence to seek a reconciliation between the two countries.
In November 2017, a commission headed by MBS began rounding up and arresting at least 200 officials, including business tycoons, princes and government ministers, and imprisoned them in the temporarily requisitioned Ritz-Carlton hotel in Riyadh. Ostensibly as part of an anti-corruption probe, these ultra-wealthy individuals were made to hand over hundreds of millions of dollars, and were released in a process that reportedly involved physical abuse. At least 17 officials were hospitalized after being arrested and at least one died in custody. Many of the individuals remain detained, including a former economy minister, and some have been held in the maximum-security al-Haer prison.
In a similarly notable attack on human rights, in 2017 the Saudis apparently held Lebanon’s (usually pro-Riyadh) prime minister hostage over his more independent movements. Although exact details are few, this episode highlights just how brazen the new regime in Riyadh has become.
Almost totally unchecked by the international community, save a few rhetorical outbursts, Saudi Arabia’s disparaging view of human rights has only worsened. Brazen acts have led to more brazen acts. This culminated in the alleged murder of Jamal Khashoggi, who was reportedly interrogated, killed, dismembered and then secreted out of the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey where he was trying to get documents for his forthcoming marriage. It appears that the consulate colluded with Saudi intelligence to lay a trap for Khashoggi when he was asked to return to the building. This is by far the most worrying human rights abuse in recent months, if only for its boldness. Time will tell whether it marks the start of a downward spiral.
Culture of Abuse
Human rights failings are also more deeply rooted in Saudi society. Rights for the LGBT community are negligible, with homosexual acts illegal and the notion of equality for this community almost totally absent. Despite recent reforms, Saudi Arabia remains a highly conservative Muslim society, with a strong attachment to Wahhabism, one of the most hardline strands of Islam. This conservatism is strictly Sunni, and the country’s Shiite minority (found primarily in the eastern provinces) face systematic discrimination, including being sidelined economically and persecuted for their beliefs. Christians are few and far between, but Christian foreign workers have long complained of obstacles to them worshipping. Officially, non-Muslim places of worship are banned.
Yet one of the most egregious attacks on human rights committed by Riyadh is not within Saudi borders. The kingdom has spearheaded the war against Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen, creating one of the greatest humanitarian disasters of recent times.
The Saudi-led air campaign has been widely denounced as indiscriminate, despite Riyadh having top-line smart munitions at its disposal. The campaign nominally targeting Houthi militants from the air has killed large numbers of civilians. An analysis by the independent Yemen Data Project of 18,000 air strikes from March 2015 to April 2016 found that almost a third targeted civilians – enough reason to label such strikes war crimes according to the Geneva Convention.
In addition, the regular blocking of aid to Houthi areas has resulted in widespread starvation in key population centres. The United Nations estimates that fighting and the blockade have left 22 million people struggling to feed themselves, with the elderly and children especially vulnerable. These figures are extremely worrying given that half of Yemen’s population is under the age of 18.
No Friend of Human Rights
Saudi Arabia has proved itself to be an ardent opponent of human rights, despite MBS’ PR campaigns proclaiming reform. The kingdom has, some argue, also managed to damage human rights in totally novel fields. In a highly successful publicity stunt, Riyadh granted citizenship to a robot, Sophia. Granting citizenship – and thereby rights – to a machine calls into question the value that the Saudi regime places on human rights at all.