An Inconvenient Truth: Saudi Arabia’s Human Rights Record

Many would ascribe the constant tensions between the Western superpowers and the Islamic world since the 1970s to be the result of the West’s consistent attempts to alter the cultural and political makeup of the Middle East. U.S. foreign policy is far from passive in the region, from the CIA-led coup which ousted the Iranian Prime Minister Mosaddegh in 1953, to President Bush’s Operation Enduring Freedom, which responded to the September 11th attacks by initiating a ‘War on Terror,’ targeting countries entirely unrelated to the terror.

Essentially, out of manifest destiny- the idea that American values and virtues must be spread far and wide- came countless incidences of U.S. interventionism abroad, especially in the Middle East, which have hinged upon an ideological disparity between liberal democracy and conservative theocracy. However, President Trump represents perhaps a divergence from this trend. Saudi Arabia’s human rights record is undeniably atrocious, still a proponent of the archaic practice of public beheadings, yet earlier this year, on his visit to the nation, Trump declared “We are not here to tell other people how to live, what to do, who to be, or how to worship.”

Interestingly, despite Trump’s vehement hatred for the barbarism of ISIS, Saudi Arabia, who have a long history of state sponsoring terror groups and witness unprecedented levels of their civilian population joining Al-Qaeda, have received no critical opinion from the U.S. President. Now, one must note that Trump’s indifference to Saudi Arabia’s actions is in no way unique. Considering the Saudi oil embargo of 1973 which rapidly multiplied U.S. oil prices, relations between the two countries have relied upon mutual interests, with the United States selling billions of dollars of weaponry to the Wahabi royalty. Unsurprisingly, economic interests coerce human rights violations to a level of insignificance, and thus, Saudi Arabia’s human rights record is an inconvenient truth to the ‘Leader of the Free World’.

The extent of the injustices in Saudi Arabia is shockingly far-reaching and must be constantly refreshed in the minds of those living in the U.S. and U.K., countries who unashamedly export arms to the Kingdom whose economy is weakening with drops in oil prices.

On 2 January, 2017, 43 beheadings were carried out in Saudi Arabia, and many of these victims faced torture and coercion to force incriminating testimonies, a matter justified by the Foreign Minister, Adel bin Ahmed Al-Jubeir. Qorvis, a U.S. advertising company who work with Saudi Arabia, have been accused of aiding the mission to ‘whitewash’ their human rights record, spouting pro-Saudi propaganda. In the country, non-violent drug charges have been met with capital punishment, a response condemned by international law. The Human Rights Watch (HRW), reported that in 2016, the court system sentenced Abu al-Khair, a human rights activist, to 15 years imprisonment for charges related to peaceful protesting.

Last year, Saudi Arabia reportedly executed 154 people, supposedly in line with Sharia law, which places them at third globally for usage of capital punishment, behind only China and Iran, and reaching statistical highs rarely seen in recent decades.

Recent crackdowns by the Saudi Prince Mohammed bin Salman on corruption have largely been met with positivity, however critics note that the Prince is simply consolidating his own power by imprisoning high-profile royals who disagree with his directive authority. The Prince is also attempting to seize the assets of these condemned opponents, perhaps a prelude to an even greater authoritarianism in Saudi Arabia.

There is no formal penal code in Saudi Arabia, resulting in unjustified capital sentences for juveniles. A notable case is that of Ali Mohammed Baqir al-Nimr, who is currently on death row for protesting whilst under the age of 18, leading to international condemnation of the Saudi judgement.  Journalist Alaa Brinji was sentenced to 5 years in 2016 for tweeting criticisms toward the religious authority, especially regarding sexism, an absurd punishment to say very little.  Detaining suspects for years without trial, and without access to lawyers during interrogations or later in trial, is very common practice in Saudi Arabia, and corporal punishment for often relatively insignificant offences is a great concern.

Culture is subjective, and whilst Trump may in some ways be correct to not approach a foreign monarchy through a western lense, the code of human rights should be applied universally by all of those who subscribe to its ethos. Saudi Arabia grossly ignore and violate human rights, and as their Western allies are mostly eager to hush this reality, it is a very inconvenient truth. With Trump in the White House, it would not be a surprise if this matter continues to be sidelined.