Saudi Arabia is one of the United States’ most prominent allies in the Middle East, as well as a major trading partner. In a region where human rights violations are rampant, the fundamentalist Sunni monarchy often gets a pass despite many, well-documented abuses of women and political dissidents. For more, Radio VR’s Justin Mitchell spoke with Adam Coogle, a Middle East researcher at Human Rights Watch, which just published a report documenting Saudi rights abuses in 2013. Coogle also recently wrote an article for Foreign Policy magazine called “The Deafening US Silence on Saudi Rights.”
Can you tell us a little but about how these human rights abuses are allowed to happen?
Saudi Arabia is one of the most closed countries in the world. Citizens there have never had much of a say in governance, or any ability to criticize government policies… The government has always attempted to control society through various means. In truth, what’s really happened over the last couple of years is that the growth of new media social networks, the ability of activists and citizens to communicate and to spread new ideas has really brought about sort of disclosing of communication and thought between Saudis that wasn’t possible just several years ago when all Saudis had to watch was the state TV. In this sort of environment things have come to the fore and the Saudis of course have responded, they’ve never tolerated independent voices, that criticize government policies, that call out authorities for the human rights abuses, including the lack of all political rights, the official discrimination against women male guardianship system, as well as rampant abuses of migrant workers resident the country.
What are some of the worst examples of human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia that happened last year?
What we have seen is an increase in the amount of arrests, investigations and prosecutions of independent activism. Post 2011 the end of uprising the Saudis really took a no-tolerance policy to any form of domestic criticism. They moved to restrict any independent voices, they try intimidation, they threaten, they impose travel bans arbitrarily, in some cases they actually arrest based on charges that are very vague and purely based on peaceful activism.
The increase in these kinds of prosecutions is worrying and it shows how far authorities are willing to go to step out voices who call for reform or voices who call for the allowances of the independent activism or voices who just criticize Sadi Arabian human rights abuses.
Of course in Saudi Arabia among those activists are people who are focused on women’s rights.
Male guardianship system officially discriminates Saudi women by innocence classifying them as legal minors requiring the signature of their male guardian which is typically their husband or a father to perform basic life functions such as to get a passport and travel, to undergo certain medical procedures or to access higher education among other things.
I’d like to also point out the very widespread and large labour crackdown against migrant workers who had a regular status within a country where workers either didn’t have work permits or residency permits or who are breaking labour laws. According to the numbers that have been released we know that hundreds of thousands were arrested and deported to various countries.
Saudi Arabia did seem to dodge a lot of the instability the Arab Spring brought around the region. How did they manage that?
I think through a combination of things. Number one: Saudi society never really had any kind of tradition of independent activism. Before just a couple of years ago it was almost impossible for Saudis to communicate, they just really didn’t have any structure on which to base human rights based protest movement or something like you saw in other Arab countries. But look at the response of Saudi authorities to independent activism and independent voices over last couple of years, it certainly cracked down very fiercely.
As human rights watch we’ve been calling on the authorities over and over again to release all activists jailed purely for their peaceful activism on vague charges as well as to stop arresting the rest who are waiting investigations and trials at this point.
What kind of the crimes are the people who were beheaded in public being convicted of?
In the vast majority cases it tends to be murder from the cases I’ve seen.
So Saudi Arabia is widely seen as one of the US’s most reliable allies in the Persian Gulf, in the Mid East. How despite the reality on the ground at home does this status for this country get maintained?
Obviously the US and Saudi Arabia have very long term economic and security relationship, there are a lot of geo-strategic concerns that play in Us’s relationship with Saudi Arabia.
I think public diplomacy is a tool that the US has underutilized in the Saudi case. But to be fair I do also want to mention to the US’s credit, they did for the first time in January 2014 sent a representative to attend the trail of a political dissident in Saudi Arabia. I though that was a very important step forward and I hope it is something they’ll make a habit of and I hope eventually they’ll come to make more bold pubic statements about very clear human rights abuses that happen in Saudi Arabia.
As for human rights abuses worldwide what does Saudi Arabia land in your mind?
Regionally Saudi Arabia is a very secure society, there is not fighting and war on the streets like you have in some regional countries. There is some sort of stability which is very good. At the same time citizens have very few rights. There is no freedom of expression, especially for women, they face official discrimination every day, they can’t drive, they can’t basically perform a lot of official government business without the approval of their male guardian Also like the rest of the Gulf, the rights of migrant workers are violated on regular basis.