Saudi Arabia should invest in human rights, not PR campaigns.

In recent months, surprising headlines have appeared in international media including ‘Saudi Arabia to allow women to drive’, ‘Saudi anti-corruption drive’ and ‘Saudi Arabia, on the path to reform’. Meanwhile, when the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud visited the United Kingdom recently, he was welcomed with large full-page advertisements in newspapers and commercially sponsored billboards displayed in the streets of London saying ‘He is bringing change to Saudi Arabia’. The visit concluded with a £10 billion aircraft deal between BAE systems and Saudi Arabia.  In the first days of the Crown Prince’s visit to the USA, another arms deal worth over 12.5 billion dollars is reported to have been finalized between the USA and Saudi Arabia.

If you didn’t know better, you would think Saudi Arabia is on a path to major reform. However, in the months since the Crown Prince’s appointment, we have seen little reason to believe that his overtures are anything more than a slick PR exercise. In fact, Saudi Arabia retains an atrocious human rights record and the situation has only deteriorated since the Crown Prince was appointed as official heir to the throne in June 2017.

Instead of spending millions of dollars on slick PR campaigns announcing steps that barely scratch the surface of the reform needed within the country, here is what Saudi Arabia should do:

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.

In January, 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 to 14 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.”

A month later, prominent human rights defenders Essam Koshak and Issa al-Nukheifi were also sentenced by Saudi Arabia’s counter-terror court to four and six years in prison respectively, solely for their peaceful human rights work.

None of the charges these activists faced 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 her 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 December 2016, 15 Shi’a men were sentenced to death after a grossly unfair mass trial after they were found guilty of protest-related crimes. The sentence of 12 of these men was upheld by the Supreme Court last December, and they can be executed any time.

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.

Stop killing civilians in Yemen conflict

Saudi Arabia has 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 possible 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 USA, UK and France continue to make lucrative arms deals with the Saudis and other coalition members despite risks that these arms may be used to kill and injure civilians in unlawful attacks.

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 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.

Vision 2030, the economic reform programme that the Saudi Arabian government initiated in 2016, refers to the importance of a “vibrant society” in achieving the objectives of the Vision. For a vibrant society to emerge in Saudi Arabia, the Saudi Arabian authorities must end their repression of civil society and human rights defenders and allow them to do their work.

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.

Urge the Saudi Arabian authorities to invest in human rights and not PR campaigns:

Mohammad bin Salman: Invest in human rights, not public relations! End the repression of activists, women and minorities and the attacks on civilians in Yemen now! #SaudiArabia #CrownPrinceinUSA

.@KingSalman Practice human rights, not PR campaigns. Stop bombing civilians in Yemen.

.@KingSalman Stop prosecuting human rights defenders, they drive the positive change you claim to call for!

.@KingSalman If you truly want fundamental change, abolish the guardianship system now!