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Country in Focus: Saudi Arabia

Population GDP/Capita USD Capital City 2018 XpA Scores
33,700,000 23,219 Riyadh Freedom of Expression: 0.02
ICCPR not signed or ratified  Saudi Arabia sits at the bottom of the 4th quartile of XpA data Civic Space: 0.02
Saudi Arabia uses the “the Holy Qur’an, and the Sunna (Traditions)” of the Islamic prophet Muhammad, (as stated in Article One of the Basic Law)  as a form of Constitution. Digital: 0.03
Media: 0.02
Protection: 0.05
Transparency: 0.05

 

Saudi Arabia among the bottom 5 scoring countries the world for freedom of expression – with good reason.

Two major scandals shook the world this year, though they seem to be hardly more than standard practice for the Saudi regime, and were unable to affect its scores – which could not be much lower.

 

Figure 37:

Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman’s narrative of progress was repeatedly revealed as a sham; a journalist’s assassination linked to the Prince himself, and women human rights defenders (WHRDs) were detained – even as the public relations campaign around lifting the driving ban spread across the globe.

Saudi Arabia’s leadership embarked on a widely publicised tour in early 2018; the UK and Saudi Arabia announced a partnership worth over $100 million (USD) to create infrastructure in drought- and conflict-stricken countries, while the USA and Saudi Arabia sealed a multi-billion-dollar weapons deal.[1]

The Saudi authorities faced little international criticism for their continued crackdown on human rights defenders and others, or the wave of arbitrary detentions of prominent women’s rights activists, or even the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Despite being a member of the United Nations Human Rights Council, the country shows little interest in real human rights fulfilment.

Saudi Arabia’s Protection score is significantly lower than the regional average – at 0.05.

Jamal Khashoggi murdered in Saudi embassy in Istanbul

On 2 October, veteran journalist Jamal Khashoggi entered the Saudi Embassy in Istanbul, where Saudi agents murdered him.[2]

In the weeks after the murder, the Saudi authorities released a number of conflicting stories,[3] including claiming that Khashoggi had, in fact, left the consulate alive. The authorities also decried international media coverage as a conspiracy,[4] and called Saudis in exile who spoke out ‘enemies of the nation’.[5]

Khashoggi’s son, Salah, was banned from traveling, then finally allowed to leave the country in October after being made to publicly shake hands with the Crown Prince – part of a grim publicity stunt.[6]

Over two weeks later, on 19 October, the Saudi authorities admitted Khashoggi was dead, initially claiming that the death was accidental and then that he died in a fight. They ultimately did admit that the murder was premeditated, but fell short of naming the Crown Prince as its mastermind.

Various high-level officials were removed from their posts, and 18 Saudi nationals were detained; but public prosecution continues with no clear result, and the involvement of Saudi authorities in the murder demands an independent investigation.[7]

Khashoggi’s last article for The Washington Post, published after his death, was entitled ’What the Arab world needs most is free expression’.[8]

International response muted

Even as President Trump promised the US was taking the murder of Khashoggi ‘very seriously’, he said he was wary of imposing economic sanctions on the Gulf kingdom, citing the $110 billion (USD) arms deal and claiming competitors in Russia or China would step in and give Saudi Arabia the same money if the deal was called off. Trump suggested there were other ways to impose consequences on Saudi Arabia, but he did not specify. What these were[9]

This was typical of the international response, though eventually Germany and Sweden announced a suspension of arms exports to Saudi Arabia.[10]

In the face of the inadequate international response, the UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary, or arbitrary executions, Agnès Callamard, launched an independent investigation. She has called on UN Secretary-General António Guterres to instigate an international criminal investigation into the case, but he said only a Member State has authority to do so.

Agnès Callamard wrote: ‘Mr. Khashoggi’s killing constituted an extrajudicial killing for which the State of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is responsible’.[11] She determined that there was ‘credible evidence, warranting further investigation of high-level Saudi officials’ individual liability, including the crown prince’.[12] The trial underway in Saudi Arabia will not deliver credible accountability. The Special Rapporteur also found credible evidence pointing to the crime scenes having been thoroughly – even forensically – cleaned, indicating the Saudi investigation was not conducted in good faith, and that it even obstructed justice.[13]

Women granted the right to drive, but not to speak

Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman has been keen to promote the image of himself as a reformer through his ‘Vision 2030’ campaign, including billboards and news headlines, which the Saudi monarchy paid for.[14]

2018 did a lot to debunk this self-perpetuated myth. There has been a spike in executions since the Crown Prince took power,[15] for example – and, while women gained the ‘right to drive’ in June 2018, developments belied the underlying truth of the regime’s attitude to women’s rights. Directly after the announcement of the new permission, officials warned WHRDs to remain silent and not to speak to media.[16]

Ironically, as women gained permission to drive, Saudi authorities began a wave of arrests in May, ultimately arresting 17 prominent WHRDs.[17] Travel bans were also imposed on the families of numerous activists,[18] include feminist campaigners who had campaigned the right to drive – Dr Aisha al-Mana, Hessah al-Sheikh, and Madeha al-Ajroush – who have long participated in women’s rights campaigns, even taking part in the first driving protest in 1990.[19] Some of those arrested face up to 20 years’ imprisonment.[20]

The Saudi Press Agency said the activists ‘dared to violate the country’s religious and national pillars through making contacts in support of the activities of foreign circles [and] with the aim to destabilize the Kingdom and breach its social structure and mar the national consistency in violation of Article 12 of the Basic System for Rule’.[21]

Arrests of veteran rights campaigners were accompanied by state media campaigns calling the activists ‘traitors’ and ‘foreign agents’. The authorities tortured three of (at least) nine women activists detained in May, including through electric shocks and sexual harassment.[22] One of the WHRDs repeatedly attempted suicide.[23]

Structural change for women’s rights is still completely lacking; the guardianship system remains in place, and those who speak out on issues like domestic violence were among those detained in 2018.

Comedian Fahad Albutairi was arrested in 2018 on unclear charges following his comedy song ‘No Woman, No Drive’ – a Bob Marley parody in support of lifting the ban on women driving.[24]

Business as usual for repression in Saudi Arabia

Saudi’s regular jailing of journalists and activists continued throughout 2018, beginning with the arrests and convictions of a journalist and two human rights activists in January.[25]

Saudi Arabia is increasingly using pre-trial detention as a method of removing and silencing; the government has detained thousands for six months and more without any referral to a judge.[26]

Saudi blogger Turki bin Abdul Aziz al-Jasser, who had exposed human rights violations in the Kingdom, was forcibly disappeared after his arrest in March. Reports suggested al-Jasser had been tortured to death in prison.[27]

In 2018, the crackdown spread so far that local groups declared it impossible to assess the totality of the situation or count how many arrests the authorities made.[28]

 

 

[1] Amnesty International, Saudi Arabia 2019, available at https://www.amnesty.org/en/countries/middle-east-and-north-africa/saudi-arabia/report-saudi-arabia/

[2] ARTICLE 19, Saudi Arabia: ARTICLE 19 Calls for Independent Investigation into Presumed Murder of Missing Journalist, 8 October 2018, available at https://www.article19.org/blog/resources/saudi-arabia-article-19-calls-for-independent-investigation-into-presumed-murder-of-missing-journalist/

[3] Lee Fang, ‘Saudi media casts Khashoggi disappearance as a conspiracy, claims Qatar owns Washington Post’, The Intercept, 13 October 2018, available at https://theintercept.com/2018/10/13/khashoggi-saudi-media/

[4] Lee Fang, ‘Saudi media casts Khashoggi disappearance as a conspiracy, claims Qatar owns Washington Post’, The Intercept, 13 October 2018, available at https://theintercept.com/2018/10/13/khashoggi-saudi-media/

[5] Chris Bell and Alistair Coleman, ‘Khashoggi: Bots feed Saudi support after disappearance’, BBC News, 18 October 2018, available at https://www.bbc.com/news/blogs-trending-45901584

[6] Ben Hubbard, ‘Outrage over a handshake between Khashoggi son and the Crown Prince’, The New York Times, 28 October 2018, available at https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/24/world/middleeast/khashoggi-son-crown-prince.html

[7] ARTICLE 19, Saudi Arabia: Kingdom Must be Held to Account for Suppression of Dissent, 29 October 2018, available at https://www.article19.org/blog/resources/saudi-arabia-kingdom-must-be-held-to-account-for-suppression-of-dissent/

[8] Jamal Khashoggi, ‘What the Arab world needs most is free expression’, The Washington Post, 17 October 2018, available at https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/global-opinions/jamal-khashoggi-what-the-arab-world-needs-most-is-free-expression/2018/10/17/adfc8c44-d21d-11e8-8c22-fa2ef74bd6d6_story.html?utm_term=.9b5310aeec7d

[9] Jeremy Diamond and Barbara Starr, ´Trump’s $110 billion Saudi arms deal has only earned $14.5 billion so far´, CNN, 13 October 2018, available at https://edition.cnn.com/2018/10/12/politics/trump-khashoggi-saudi-arabia-arms-deal-sanctions/index.html

[10] Human Rights Watch, Caught in the Middle: Convincing ‘Middle Powers’ to Fight Autocrats Despite High Costs, 2019, available at https://www.hrw.org/world-report/2019/essay/convincing-middle-powers-to-fight-autocrats

[11] Agnès Callamard, Annex to the Report of the Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions: Investigation into the Unlawful Death of Mr. Jamal Khashoggi, A/HRC/41/36, 19 July 2019, available at https://www.ohchr.org/EN/HRBodies/HRC/RegularSessions/Session41/Documents/A_HRC_41_CRP.1.docx

[12] Agnès Callamard, Annex to the Report of the Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions: Investigation into the Unlawful Death of Mr. Jamal Khashoggi, A/HRC/41/36, 19 July 2019, available at https://www.ohchr.org/EN/HRBodies/HRC/RegularSessions/Session41/Documents/A_HRC_41_CRP.1.docx

[13] Agnès Callamard, Annex to the Report of the Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions: Investigation into the Unlawful Death of Mr. Jamal Khashoggi, A/HRC/41/36, 19 July 2019, available at https://www.ohchr.org/EN/HRBodies/HRC/RegularSessions/Session41/Documents/A_HRC_41_CRP.1.docx

[13]  Agnès Callamard, Annex to the Report of the Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions: Investigation into the Unlawful Death of Mr. Jamal Khashoggi, A/HRC/41/36, 19 July 2019, available at https://www.ohchr.org/EN/HRBodies/HRC/RegularSessions/Session41/Documents/A_HRC_41_CRP.1.docx

[14] BBC News, ‘Saudi Crown Prince’s billboard welcome’, 8 March 2018, available at https://www.bbc.com/news/av/world-43325614/saudi-crown-prince-s-billboard-welcome

[15] Americans for Democracy and Human Rights in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia Arrests 10 for Their Work Promoting Women’s Rights, 24 May 2018, available at https://www.adhrb.org/2018/05/saudi-arabia-arrests-10-for-their-work-promoting-womens-rights/

[16] The Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, Saudi Arabia Condemned To Silence The Situation Of Women Human Rights Defenders, January 2018, available at https://www.fidh.org/IMG/pdf/obs_as_en_v8.pdf

[17] Gulf Centre for Human Rights, Saudi Arabia: Crackdown on Saudi Women Human Rights Defenders Sets Off Alarms, 6 June 2018, available at https://www.gc4hr.org/news/view/1880

[18] ARTICLE 19, Saudi Arabia: Kingdom Must be Held to Account for Suppression of Dissent, 29 October 2018, available at https://www.article19.org/blog/resources/saudi-arabia-kingdom-must-be-held-to-account-for-suppression-of-dissent/

[19] Aya Batrawy, ‘A closer look at 10 arrested Saudi women’s rights activists’, Associated Press, 22 May 2018, available at https://apnews.com/175564ee238842ea8222b7218f41156b

[20] The Washington Post, ‘The high price of feminism in the “new” Saudi Arabia’, 20 May 2018, available at https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/middle_east/the-high-price-of-feminism-in-thenew-saudi-arabia/2018/05/20/99d6dfde-5c3f-11e8-b656-236c6214ef01_story.html?noredirect=on&utm_term=.27ddcf1b0ad1

[21] Saudi Press Agency, Seven Suspects Making Contacts with Foreign Circles Arrested, Official Source Says, 19 May 2018, available at https://www.spa.gov.sa/viewstory.php?lang=en&newsid=1767624

[22] Human Rights Watch, Saudi Arabia: Detained Women Reported Tortured, 20 November 2018, available at https://www.hrw.org/news/2018/11/20/saudi-arabia-detained-women-reported-tortured

[23] Front Line Defenders, Global Analysis 2018, 7 January 2019, available at https://www.frontlinedefenders.org/en/resource-publication/global-analysis-2018

[24] Freemuse, The State of Artistic Freedom 2019, available at https://freemuse.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/03/saf-2019-online.pdf; see also ‘No Woman, No Drive’, 26 October 2013, available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aZMbTFNp4wI

[25] Human Rights Watch, Saudi Arabia: Long Prison Terms for Rights Activists, 28 January 2018, available at https://www.hrw.org/news/2018/01/28/saudi-arabia-long-prison-terms-rights-activists

[26] Human Rights Watch, Saudi Arabia: Thousands Held Arbitrarily, 6 May 2018, available at https://www.hrw.org/news/2018/05/06/saudi-arabia-thousands-held-arbitrarily

[27] Front Line Defenders, Global Analysis 2018, 7 January 2019, available at https://www.frontlinedefenders.org/en/resource-publication/global-analysis-2018

[28] IFEX, ‘“Instagram celebrities” arrested; death certificates of Syrian activists released; and a step forward in LGBTQI+ Rights’, 1 August 2018, available at https://ifex.org/instagram-celebrities-arrested-death-certificates-of-syrian-activists-released-and-a-step-forward-in-lgbtqi-rights-mena-in-july/

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