With the recent friendlies at St James’ Park between Saudi Arabia and Costa Rica on 8 September and then against South Korea on 12 September, it seemed like a timely occasion to review what life is like in that Middle Eastern kingdom and what has happened there since the takeover of Newcastle United by the Saudi PIF in October 2021. There are some who would claim that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is a place where human rights are not respected and that the regime is a murderous regime, which starts illegal wars and responsible for many human rights abuses. But is all that really true? Let’s see what has been happening and look at the hard evidence. How has Saudi Arabia been reported in recent times?
Part I of this series covered the period from 7 October 2021 to 22June 2022. Part 2 examined what happened in Saudi Arabia during the rest of 2022. So what was happening in Saudi Arabia in the first four months of this year?
The new year began with a report in The Guardian on 5 January that Saudi Arabia had infiltrated Wikipedia and subsequently jailed two administrators in what was described as a bid to control content on the website, just weeks after a former Twitter worker had been jailed in the US for spying for the Saudis. It was noted that one administrator had been jailed for 32 years, while another had been sentenced to eight years. It was further reported by two human rights groups that an investigation by parent body Wikimedia had found that the Saudi government had penetrated Wikipedia’s senior ranks in the region, with Saudi citizens acting or forced to act as agents. Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN) and Smex, a Beirut-based organisation were quoted as saying that:
“Wikimedia’s investigation revealed that the Saudi government had infiltrated the highest ranks in Wikipedia’s team in the region”.
Five days later, on 10 January, Human Rights watch reported that a joint statement about human rights in Saudi Arabia, had been issued by ten organisations, including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Avaaz, Fairsquare, and the Human Rights Foundation. Among other comments, the statement noted that:
“in recent years, Saudi authorities’ ongoing crackdown on dissenting voices has only increased in scope and scale. Human rights activists, writers, academics, and intellectual reformers in Saudi Arabia are increasingly targeted and subjected to harassment, smear campaigns, surveillance, arbitrary detention, torture, and enforced disappearances. Saudi authorities should immediately end any abusive practices. Accountability efforts are also critical to achieving justice for victims”.
The following day the MENA rights group reported that The Open Society Justice Initiative had welcomed the support of Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN), MENA Rights Group, and the Freedom Initiative for a criminal complaint it filed in Belgium against Saudi Arabia for crimes against humanity. It was further noted that the admissibility of the complaint would be decided on in a Brussels court of appeal hearing on 24 January 2023. and if deemed admissible, it would then result in an investigation being opened into Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and other Saudi officials. The report went on to say that:
“in an expert opinion submitted to the court, DAWN, MENA Rights Group, and the Freedom Initiative highlighted the Saudi regime’s “systemic and generalized violations of human rights committed against individuals who have peacefully criticized authorities or their policies” and noted that these activities were “supported and coordinated by the government with the aim of silencing dissident voices in the country.” The three organizations concluded that “this pattern of violations amounts to crimes against humanity, as defined by the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court”.”
A week later, on 18 January, Article 19 reported on a call by a number of organisations for the release of two doctors and online activists, detained in Saudi Arabia. It was noted that the two young doctors, Osama Khalid and Ziad Al-Sufyani, who were known for their contribution to Wikipedia posts in Arabic, had been sentenced to prison in Saudi Arabia and that over the last decade they had both contributed to the online encyclopaedia, which is maintained and managed by volunteers and had edited articles about human rights defender Loujain Al-Hathloul. It was further reported that they had been arrested in the summer of 2020 while Saudi Arabia was under Covid-19 lockdown and had initially been sentenced to five and fourteen years’ imprisonment respectively before Khalid’s sentence was increased to 32 years upon his appeal.
In the middle of February concern was expressed about the ongoing online crackdown in Saudi Arabia, which among other incidents had seen a young Saudi woman, a student at Leeds University, imprisoned for 34 years for her Twitter activities. On 14 February, Amnesty International argued that over the past year, the Saudi authorities had escalated their crackdown on individuals using the internet to voice their opinions. It was noted that the organization had documented the cases of 15 people who had been sentenced in 2022 to prison terms of between ten and 45 years simply for peaceful online activities, including the longest sentence believed to ever be imposed on a Saudi woman for peaceful online expression. It was further reported that Saudi Arabia had also infiltrated at least one social media company to unlawfully obtain information on dissidents and control the information that is disseminated about the Kingdom online.
March began with the Saudi-based Arab News noting on 2 March that the Saudi Press Agency reported that the President of the Saudi Human Rights Commission Hala Al-Tuwaijri had affirmed the Kingdom’s commitment to enhancing and protecting human rights, as well as respecting cultural diversity and equality among peoples, the Saudi Press Agency reported on Tuesday. It was further noted that addressing high-level meetings of the 52nd session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, Al-Tuwaijri, who had headed the delegation representing the Kingdom, was reported as saying:
“Today marks the 75th anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which serves as the foundation for all human rights. As we recall this historic event, let us affirm that the promotion and protection of human rights require relentless and continuous efforts and the realization of transformations on the ground.”
Four days later, the European Saudi Organisation of Human Rights (ESOHR) reported that on 1 March, the Saudi Ministry of Interior had published a statement, announcing the implementation of death sentences against four people. It was further reported that three days later, the official news agency published a further two official statements which announced the implementation of two death sentences, the first of which was a Harabaah death penalty. It has been noted by the Law Study Blogspot that Harabaah is when “any one or more persons whether equipped with arms or not, make show of force for the purpose of taking away the property of another and attack him or cause wrongful restraint or put him in fear of death or hurt, such person or persons are said to commit Haraabah.” ESOHR also reported a second Taazir death sentence, a punishment for offences at the discretion of the judge ( Qadi) or ruler of the state. ESOHR also stated that the six rulings were the first rulings recorded since the beginning of 2023 and that the Taazir execution came more than three months after the publication of the last one carried out in a case related to drug charges.
On 12 March the BBC reported that Saudi Arabia had executed a Jordanian man whose family said that he had been tortured into confessing to drugs charges. The man concerned was Hussein Abu al-Khair, 57, who was said to have eight children and that he was a driver for a wealthy Saudi. It was further reported that he had been arrested in 2014, while crossing the border from Jordan into Saudi Arabia, accused of smuggling amphetamines. It was said that he was later sentenced to death, after a trial criticised by Amnesty International as “grossly unfair”. According to the BBC, al-Khair’s sister, Zeinab Abul Al-Khair, said that he had told her from jail that he had been strung up by his feet and beaten and that “he never imagined a forced confession would be allowed in his trial”.
Then on 14 March Middle East Eye reported that he had been executed a day after the UK’s Middle East minister raised his case with Saudi ministers. It was said that Lord Ahmad had discussed the case with Saudi ministers on 11 March.
On 4 April, the Hindustan Times reported that the European Saudi Organisation for Human Rights had released a statement, citing Saudi interior ministry capital punishment data, saying that, “Saudi Arabia executed a citizen during Ramadan”. The statement went on to note that in Saudi Arabia since 2009, “no sentence has been implemented during the holy month”. The man executed was said to have been convicted of murder, having stabbed his victim and set fire to him and was put to death in the Medina region. The Hindustan Times also noted that, “Saudi Arabia has one of the world’s highest rates of executions and with the latest case, the number of executions in 2023 rose to 17, the group said. In 2022, Saudi Arabia executed 147 people in- over double the 2021 figure of 69, news agency AFP earlier reported.”
So, there is an awful lot of evidence about what was happening in Saudi Arabia from January 2023 to the end of April this year. Are those who accuse the Saudi regime of having a bad human rights record being fair?
Where do we stand at times of challenge and controversy?
In November 1967 Newcastle University became the only university in Britain to honour Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in his lifetime. One of King’s most famous quotes was that:
“the ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”Martin Luther King Jnr
In June of this year, a report from Fairsquare suggested that local politicians and media sources in the North East really should be speaking out more about the human rights record of Saudi Arabia. Were the authors of the report correct to say that? How should we respond to the Saudi regime’s record on human rights?