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Saudi Arabia, so we need friends like these?

On July 18th, in Westminster Hall, MPs lined up to list human rights abuses perpetrated by Saudi Arabia, particularly against women, and to ask the government to openly criticise Crown Prince MBS’s approach to dissent. In response Foreign Office Minister Andrew Murrison praised wide societal changes within the kingdom that we ‘have to encourage,’ and suggested that in fact women were taking on new roles there.

They certainly are. In May 2018 Saudi authorities detained multiple women including Loujain al-Hathloul, Iman al-Nafjan and Aziza al-Yousef. In July 2018 they arrested Samar Badawi, sister of jailed blogger Raif Badawi, and Nassima al-Sada. The women were protesting against the male guardianship system, which requires women to obtain their guardian’s permission to work, travel, study, marry or access health care or justice. In March Loujain, Iman, and Aziza and 8 others were tried in camera in a trial at which they were not allowed to speak. Charges included communicating with ‘external hostile powers’ (human rights organisations) and luring minors to work against the Kingdom. A few were released, but Loujain remains detained. At Christmas she told her parents she had been whipped, beaten, waterboarded, electric-shocked and threatened with rape and murder, and that Saud al-Qahtani, the adviser to MBS linked to the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, had led one session, saying, ‘we will rape you, we will kill you, we will cut you in pieces and put you in the sewage system.’ On Christmas Day her father tweeted that his daughter had been tortured, expressing his sense of helplessness, then deleted his account. The Saudi public prosecutor simply says the allegations are false.

The Saudi Human Rights organisation Al Qst say eight other women activists, including Samar Badawi, have also been tortured by ‘the Cyber Group’ a team operating with impunity in fully equipped torture centres. They say human rights are deteriorating dramatically as MBS stifles all dissent, even as he takes the credit for selected ‘social reforms.’ The Kingdom may now have 15 cinemas and one female ambassador but it is only, they say, in prison that you will now find any diversity of opinion expressed at all.

Countries who speak out have been picked off – when Canada criticised Samar Badawi’s arrest the Kingdom suspended trade (except oils sales – surprise) and broke off diplomatic relations. However, since the June 26th release of the UN special rapporteur’s report suggesting the direct involvement of MBS in Khashoggi’s murder, demanding both a criminal investigation (has anyone checked the sewage system in Istanbul?) and monitoring of human rights, hopes had risen for a unified approach. On July 18th the US House of representatives voted to block supply of precision guided missiles to KSA. Would we now, asked Alastair Carmichael, echo international condemnation of these human rights abuses? The Minister responded eloquently. He said he did not accept that things were getting worse. He said speaking out would be ‘virtue signalling’ to make us feel good about ourselves. He said our relationship with the kingdom was complex and nuanced. He said he favoured constructive engagement. Dr Grim thinks he said no.

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