Transacting Human Rights: Saudi Arabia

Madeleine Stone takes you through our first York PEN discussion of the term, on the place of human rights in UK-Saudi relations.

Our first week’s discussion on this term’s campaign- the relationship between human rights, trade and the United Kingdom’s relationship with countries that have a record of human rights abuses- centred on Saudi Arabia. The United Kingdom has had strong ties with Saudi Arabia since its creation in the early 20th century. A parliamentary committee report from 2013 states “[t]he Gulf region remains critical to the UK’s interests. The Government is correct to place emphasis on the UK’s long-standing relationships with partners in the Gulf and to seek to further extend these ties.” It offers oil, a friendly presence in the Middle East and highly valued trade deals, but at a high price to the people of Saudi Arabia.

cameron saudi

We began our discussion with research from our Campaigns Officer, Rosie Frost. She highlighted the news that emerged in the autumn of 2015 – that in 2013, Britain initiated secret vote-trading deals with Saudi Arabia to ensure both states were elected to the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC). One of the rules for selection are that candidates must have good human rights record: in 2016 alone the Saudi government has executed over 100 people, it still has the death penalty for homosexuality, it introduced legislation in 2014 that effectively equated criticism of the government with terrorism, has little protection for migrant workers and imprisons and executes human rights defenders. Two notable cases in recent months which English PEN, Amnesty International and Human Right Watch have campaigned on are the imprisonment and corporal punishment of blogger Raif Badawi and the sentence of execution for poet Ashraf Fayadh. In fact, Saudi Arabia is one of the world’s ten worst states for human rights according to Freedom House. Clearly Saudi Arabia should not hold a position of influence on the UNHRC, so why was the UK eager to ensure Saudi Arabia got a seat? As a country with a good record on human rights, the UK hardly needed the extra vote to guarantee a seat and so we must ask what lay behind this seemingly straight-forward (but still dodgy) vote exchange.

prince-charles-dances-traditional-dress-saudi-arabiaThe likely motivation for the under-the-table deal was the small matter of more than 200 Saudi-UK joint ventures worth over $17.5 billion, the most high-profile of these being the military agreement that meant the UK would equip Saudi Arabic with fighter jets from BAE Systems. Saudi Arabia is the UK’s biggest partner in the arms trade, and a panel commissioned by Amnesty International and Saferworld found that these weapons have been used against targets in Yemen, breaking national, EU and international law. 2015 saw the government trying hide Theresa May’s agreement to a ‘memorandum of understanding’ with Crown Prince Muhammad bin Nayef, referred only to as an ‘agreement to modernise the Ministry of the Interior.’ It is concerning that the UK is doing even more secret deals with Saudi Arabia considering their considerable human rights abuses.


Tobias Ellwood, parliamentary under-secretary of state for foreign and commonwealth affairs, defended the UK government’s lack of intervention, stating “change cannot happen overnight” and freedom there “needs to move at a pace acceptable to its society.” This seems overly convenient for a government who has made it clear that economic investment trumps the defence of human rights.

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