Saudi Arabia and the West: The issue of Human Rights

In August 2018, Saudi Arabia and Canada had a falling out over a tweet sent by Canada’s foreign minister regarding release of Saudi human right activist. This incident resulted in a freeze in Saudi-Canadian trade ties, expulsion of Canadian ambassador to Saudi, and repatriation of Saudi students in Canadian institutions.  The spat also put in doldrums the $15 billion arms sale signed by the two countries in 2014. Some are of the view that these dents to Canadian economy constitute a small percentage of Canadian trade. While others think that Canada could be deprived of investment opportunities in Saudi Vision 2030.

Recently, Justin Trudeau stated that his government is engaging diplomatically with Saudi Arabia but would not back down on his concerns about human rights. Following the diplomatic crisis, Canada also reportedly sought help from other nations that have had falling out with KSA over issues of human rights and sought to persuade like-minded countries to take a principled stand.

The US in this matter remained neutral and stated that “both countries are close allies of the USA”.

James Dorsey in his recent blog notes that signs of opposition to Saudi policies are brewing in the West. A recent report  by King’s College London and the Oxford Research Group calls into question the British- Saudi security and economic ties and its implications on violations of human rights.

The report notes that:

“A key pillar of the relationship is the flow of arms from the UK to Saudi Arabia. Yet the defence and security relationship between the UK and a country which continues to hold a poor human rights record, has repeatedly been the subject of controversy in the UK. Saudi Arabia’s military operations in Yemen in particular have only served to fuel public and parliamentary scrutiny over the UK’s relationship with Saudi Arabia, specifically the arms trade.

There is a contradiction between the UK presenting itself as a progressive, liberal country and defender the international rules-based order, while at the same time providing diplomatic cover for a regime, which, based on analysis, is undermining that rules-based order.  The UK appears to be incurring reputational costs as a result of its relationship with Saudi Arabia, while the economic benefits to the UK are questionable.

 The UK government should limit and be more selective in the ways in which it chooses to engage with Saudi Arabia. The choice of activities should be driven not only by political and economic considerations, but through a more nuanced understanding of the potential ramifications of engagement, such as damage to the UK’s international reputation.

 This understanding should be based on an assessment of the costs and benefits to the UK.  The UK needs to be more transparent about its relationship with Saudi Arabia. Without the ability to quantify how the UK can demonstrably exert influence on Saudi Arabia, efforts by the government to extol the importance of UK-Saudi Arabia security relations will be undercut.”

It has been noted that because of Saudi Arabia’s conduct in Yemen and issues related to violations of human rights, Saudi Arabia is losing support from some Western countries.

Recently, Spain has also cancelled the sale of 400 laser-guided bombs to Saudi Arabia over concerns they could be used to target civilians in the Yemen war. Reportedly, the Spanish administration plans to return $10.6m paid by Saudi Arabia as part of the deal.

In January 2018, Norway suspended exports to the United Arab Emirates based on its assessment of the situation in Yemen. Following suit, Germany also halted arms exports to countries involved in the Yemen war. In the recent past, Belgium also announced it would no longer authorise any licenses to the Ministry of Defence of Saudi Arabia for military equipment that could be used in the Yemen conflict. Earlier in 2015, Sweden also halted some military cooperation agreements with KSA over reasons concerning human rights violations and in 2016, Netherlands voted to ban weapon exports to KSA.

There is a perception amongst some countries that Saudi Arabia’s recent internal reforms may be cosmetic and that the country maintains questionable human rights record, which may be worsening due its alleged hawkish foreign policy agendas. A collective stance of the EU states, UK and Canada may manage to gain diplomatic leverage over KSA- keeping in view the Kingdom’s defense requirements. Saudi Arabia also finds itself in a rift with many of the European nations over their stance on preserving the JCPOA. For now, US seems to be the Kingdoms best Western ally in the Middle East arena.

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