Saudi Arabia’s biggest obstacle to progress lies in its systematic human rights violations

At the World Economic Forum at Davos this week, Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir announced ambitious new plans for a “fundamental transformation” of the country. 

“The world is not used to seeing Saudi Arabia moving quickly and boldly,” he told assembled world leaders.

It was the latest move in Saudi Arabia’s recent PR offensive, which has seen Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman promise modernization and lift the notorious ban on women driving. But changes so far have been superficial and serious human rights violations, both at home and abroad, remain major obstacles to meaningful reform in Saudi Arabia.

While women drivers and newly legalized cinemas may make headlines, they barely scratch the surface of the reform needed within the country. Human rights violations aren’t sporadic; they are systematic, and Saudi Arabia needs to effect a fundamental structural change if it is serious about progress.

Here are some key steps that Saudi Arabia needs to take if it wants to fulfil its ambitions: 

Stop cracking down on activists, journalists, academics, and dissidents

Saudi Arabia’s crackdown on activists, journalists, academics, and other dissidents has intensified in the past months since Mohammad bin Salman became Crown Prince. 

A few days ago, Mohammad al-Otaibi and Abdullah al-Attawi became the first human rights defenders to be sentenced under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman by Saudi Arabia’s counter-terror court to14 and seven years in prison respectively, primarily for setting up a human rights organization and for a wide array of other charges that include: “spreading chaos and inciting public opinion”, “publishing statements that are harmful to the reputation of the Kingdom and its judicial and security institutions”, and “participating in setting up an organization and announcing it before getting an authorization.” 

The authorities also continued to put human rights defenders on trial before the counter-terror court on charges related to their peaceful activism. 

None of these charges should be considered crimes and human rights defenders should not be considered “terrorists”. The harsh sentences handed down suggest that upholding freedom of expression is not included in the promised “transformation”.

End systematic discrimination against women

Women and girls still face entrenched discrimination in Saudi Arabia, and are legally subordinate to men in relation to marriage, divorce, child custody and inheritance.  Under the guardianship system, a woman cannot make decisions on their own; instead, a male relative can decide everything on her behalf. 

There is absolutely no way that Saudi Arabia can credibly claim to be seeking reform until it addresses this outrageous inequality. 

End the persecution of the Shi’a minority

Freedom of religion continues to be a pipe dream in Saudi Arabia, and this is especially apparent in the persecution of the Shi’a Muslim minority, who have faced social and economic discrimination for years. 

Activists from the Shi’a minority community continue to be targeted, arrested and in many cases sentenced to death following grossly unfair trials for participating in anti-government protests and expressing dissent. Last year, four Shi’a men were executed for offences in relation to their participation in anti-government protests. In 2016, 14 Shi’a men were sentenced to death after a grossly unfair mass trial after they were found guilty of protest-related crimes.

Stop the use of the death penalty. Stop torture.

Saudi Arabia is one of the world’s most prolific executioners, routinely sentencing people to death and executing them following grossly unfair trials. 

In July 2016, 21-year-old Abdulkareem al-Hawaj was sentenced to death for allegedly committing a range of offences in relation to his participation in anti-government protests when he was 16 years old. Despite al-Hawaj’s claims that he was tortured to “confess” during his interrogations, the judge has not opened an investigation into his allegations and has apparently based al-Hawaj’s conviction on the torture-tainted “confession”. Al-Hawaj’s sentence was upheld in July 2017 and he is at imminent risk of execution. 

International law prohibits the use of torture-tainted evidence and the use of the death penalty against people convicted of having committed crimes as children. However, the kind of injustice that Abdulkareem al-Hawaj faced is alarmingly common.

It has been proven time and again that the death penalty does not deter crime, and Saudi Arabia continues to sentence people to death for non-violent crimes and following grossly unfair trials. Moreover, these cases demonstrate that the Saudi Arabian authorities continue to use the death penalty as a political weapon against the Shi’a minority to crush dissent.

Setting an example for the region? Don’t forget Yemen

Saudi Arabia has just launched a massive campaign to promote its aid donations to Yemen. But while it gives money with one hand, with the other it rains down bombs on hospitals, schools and civilian homes. The Saudi Arabia-led coalition in Yemen has carried out violations of international humanitarian law, including war crimes. 

Amnesty International has documented repeated indiscriminate attacks and other serious violations by the Saudi Arabia-led coalition in Yemen that have killed and injured civilians, including children. Still, countries including the US, UK and France continue to make lucrative arms deals with the Saudis and other coalition members. 

Moreover, restrictions on aid and the import of essential goods have prevented or delayed the entry of food, medicine, and other vital goods and have put millions of Yemenis at risk. The devastating impact of these restrictions cannot be mitigated by publicity stunts about Saudi Arabia’s humanitarian assistance.

Want progress? Look to Saudi civil society.

Saudi Arabia’s leaders have announced progress as their number one goal. But at the moment, many of the best catalysts for progress are in exile, in prison or living in silent fear among the general public.

Human rights activists, academics, journalists and concerned citizens and residents are not the enemy; they are dynamic agents of positive reform. Their protests, writing and advocacy for social and political reforms are all in the interest of progress in Saudi Arabia. 

Foreign minister al-Jubeir told Davos that “people criticise Saudi Arabia for moving too slowly, now it is moving fast.” What’s vital is that this progress includes everyone; women, minorities, people with dissenting views. Saudi Arabia now needs to take criticism of its human rights record on board, and prove that it is willing to take bold steps for change.