RIYADH — Human rights groups claim that human rights in Saudi Arabia are worsening. These groups continuously condemn the nation for its systematic human rights abuses. In Saudi Arabia, law enforcement actively suppresses free speech, assembly and political dissidence, with offenders often given decades-long jail sentences for vague charges like “breaking allegiance with the ruler.” The groups expect continued convictions for charges relating to terrorism or treason.
The kingdom has only increased suppression of free speech in 2017. In 2016, Saudi Arabia was subject to several controversies relating to freedom of speech, including the execution of 47 peaceful political protesters, the largest mass-execution in Saudi Arabia in more than three decades.
Amongst the executed was a notable Shiite cleric, Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, who regularly spoke out against Saudi Arabia’s treatment of Shiite minority. Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr’s execution sparked worldwide outrage among Shia Muslims; protestors in predominantly-Shiite Iran torched and vandalized the Saudi Arabian embassy in Tehran. Saudi Arabian officials claim that these executions are justified as part of the kingdom’s anti-terrorism efforts.
Another main source of criticism when it comes to human rights in Saudi Arabia is its treatment of women. Saudi Arabia subjects women to a system of ‘guardianship,’ in which a male guardian — usually a father or husband — has to provide consent for women to travel, obtain a passport or marry. In order to register to vote, Saudi women must prove their residency in their respective voting district. This is often impossible, as women seldom list their names on housing deeds or lease agreements.
Additionally, Saudi Arabia is the only country on earth where women are legally not allowed to drive. In 2014, Saudi civil rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul was detained for 73 days for defying the official female driver ban when driving from the United Arab Emirates back into Saudi Arabia. In June 2017, security personnel at King Fahd International Airport arrested her again, according to Amnesty International. Authorities denied al-Hathloul access to an attorney or her family before releasing her a few days later.
Saudi Arabia and the United Nations face criticism for Saudi Arabia’s position on the U.N. Human Rights Council; the above-mentioned controversies include just some of the reasons why. Ironically, the U.N. claims that when electing member-states to the Human Rights Council, “the General Assembly takes into account the candidate state’s contribution to the promotion and protection of human rights, as well as their voluntary pledges and commitments in this regard.”
As if this controversy wasn’t enough, Saudi Arabia was elected to sit on the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women earlier this year, despite ranking 141 out of 144 countries in the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap. Executive Director Hillel Neuer of the U.N. Watch, a Geneva-based organization that aims to hold the U.N. accountable for its aims and mission statements, addressed the Human Rights Council on June 8.
Neuer spoke about Saudi Arabia’s place on the council and the Commission on the Status of Women. “There is little space for women to participate in public policymaking. No organizations are allowed to work on women’s rights, or indeed to work on human rights at all…Saudi Arabia jailed one of its most prominent women’s rights activists, Samar Badawi. Her brother, human rights activist Raif Badawi, is languishing in prison on a 10-year sentence,” Neuer said.
In response, the U.N. called such criticisms a “distraction” and “gross oversimplification. However, Philip Alston, a U.N. Human Rights Council expert, claims that “we need to ensure engagement with countries like Saudi Arabia.” Saudi Arabia’s mere involvement with the council may lead to improving conditions for Saudi women.
Despite the above-outlined details, the nation is experiencing changes within. Women in Saudi Arabia have made some, however modest, gains for human rights in Saudi Arabia. According to Human Rights Watch, Saudi Arabia allowed women limited access to the labor market in recent years. The law removed statements that required women to work in fields “suitable to their nature”, increasing their opportunities.
The government even gave businesses incentives to hire women and provided scholarships for women to study at foreign universities. The male guardianship system in Saudi Arabia, while still present, no longer requires a woman to receive a guardian’s permission to work. This is all part of a larger economic plan for Saudi Arabia to move away from oil-dependency and achieve significant economic gains by 2030.
On June 21, King Salman of Saudi Arabia installed his son, Mohammed bin Salman, as the new crown prince. Mohammed bin Nayef, previous crown prince and interior minister, frequently installed travel bans on women and suppressed political dissidents with violence. Nonprofit organizations jumped at the new leadership, urging the nation to adopt better standards for human rights in Saudi Arabia.
New Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has not stated whether he will improve human rights in Saudi Arabia, but he also hasn’t shied away from questions. In an interview with the Economist, he said that, regarding women’s status in Saudi Arabia, “it just takes time.”
– David McLellan