A couple of months ago, Peter Sagar asked what we locally, and especially local elected representatives, can do about the human rights situation in Saudi Arabia.
This article is an attempt to answer Peter’s article by looking in particular at what actions MPs and local councillors might consider in future.
First there are a couple of provisos:-
Fact checking is vital as not everything one hears about or from Saudi Arabia is true. Recently I heard John Pienaar declare on Times Radio that gay people in Saudi Arabia face the death penalty. True enough in law, but the fact is that there is no evidence that the Saudi State actively prosecutes homosexuality, nor have there been any death sentences of gay individuals in recent years.
Meanwhile Private Eye magazine has published cartoons implying punishment by flogging in Saudi Arabia, ignoring the fact that it was abolished in 2020 – which of course does not mean that those in detention no longer suffer systematic physical abuse, especially those subject to the attentions of the Specialised Criminal Courts
On the other hand stories of sexual liberation at a Jeddah beach hotel and a regular mixed sex cycling group that hit obscure publications in the Middle East around the time of the Newcastle United takeover stretched credibility and were probably planted for effect.
An interesting situation surrounds claims by the Saudi regime, and widely repeated by UK media and human rights organisations, that Yasir Al-Rumayyan, Chair of the Newcastle United Board is a Saudi Government minister. The claim was made in March this year to secure his exemption from a potentially embarrassing US court case over LIV Golf. If you delve back before that date, as I did, you will find precious little evidence of his ministerial role or pronouncements, just one similar claim from December 2022 which appears to have been made to get him onto a delegation meeting Chinese officials. Then he was conveniently described as a minister ‘who works on China affairs’. It is highly doubtful that he is in any meaningful sense a minister.
Peter Sagar rightly identified the ‘deafening silence’ from local politicians at the time of the Newcastle United takeover, and that there is now more willingness among them to discuss the abuses that are occurring in Saudi Arabia.
The initial reluctance was understandable, if not defensible, in the light of the massive support among Newcastle United fans, including their own constituents, for the takeover. Virtually all the respondents surveyed by Newcastle United Supporters Trust a year afterwards stated that they were happy with the way the club was being run. And indeed the positive results at the club can be seen not just on the pitch but also in the infrastructural improvements that have been made by the new management.
The frequent logical mistake however is to assume that supporting the team is the same as supporting the regime, and conversely that opposing Saudi human rights abuses is to oppose the current club management.
Local politicians should not allow themselves to fall into this trap. The abuses perpetrated by Saudi Arabia are real and they need to speak out.
Having said this, any clear evidence of ‘undue interference’ in the club by the Saudi state would need to be notified to the Premier League if they can be clearly proven to exist. At the current time there are suspicious signs – the adoption of a Saudi style away strip and the use of St James’ Park for Saudi Arabia friendlies, but no clear evidence trail.
Overall then, what can we expect our elected representatives to do?
It is fairly clear what local MPs could do about Saudi Arabia, as the London-based organisation ALQST has formulated nineteen detailed recommendations to the UK Government, which are readily available here.
It would therefore seem sensible that MPs should be lobbying for a detailed discussion of the ALQST recommendations. Although ALQST has held occasional parliamentary briefings, their recommendations do not at first sight appear to have been discussed by the Saudi Arabia All Party Parliamentary Group. Local MPs could ask representatives of their own political party on this group if the ALQST recommendations have in fact been discussed by the group and what its stance is on them. It is further interesting to note that no North East MP is listed on the APPG web page as a member of the group, although it is feasible for any MP to apply. Surely the northern group of MPs should get together to rectify this omission.
In terms of information, all North East MPs should make themselves familiar with the current version of the House of Commons Briefing on Saudi Arabia, which gives a reasonably balanced view of the human rights issues there, if somewhat naive in apparently believing that recent supposed reforms to the kafala system and the rights of women have been effective. There are many Saudi activists who would disagree.
Obviously it would be great if MPs could lobby for the release of key human rights defenders currently imprisoned in Saudi Arabia, for example Leeds University student Salma al-Shehab, whose case has been raised in the Commons by Hilary Benn, MP for Leeds Central.
Salma is just one of many hundreds of people who have received ludicrously long jail sentences for simply exercising their freedom of speech on social media. The steep rise in the length of sentences started after the appointment of Awadh al-Ahmari, a Saudi State Security agent with no legal qualification, as Head of the notorious Specialised Criminal Courts. MPs might like to note that Ahmari, who was also involved in the attempted cover-up of the murder of Jamaal Khashoggi, has yet to be sanctioned by the UK Government.
Councillors and councils
It seems to be a given that local councils should deal with local matters. However, there are occasions when concerns from abroad have local implications. So Newcastle City Council felt constrained to withdraw from a twinning arrangement with a Chinese town because of the abuse of the Uighur minority in that country.
It can be argued that the same applies in the case of the involvement of the Saudi PIF with Newcastle United FC. Tyneside and arguably the North East as a region are inevitably associated with Saudi human rights abuses so that a failure to condemn these abuses is effectively to condone them.
A simple move that local councillors could make would be to propose in each council a motion to endorse the document “A People’s Vision for Reform in Saudi Arabia”. This document, drafted by Saudi activists, academics, and intellectuals, is a simple assertion of democratic, civic and human rights they regard as essential for the further development of Saudi Arabia in the future. It contains nothing that anyone participating in civil democracy could find remotely objectionable and conveniently highlights key areas where Saudi Arabia currently falls short.
Trade with Saudi Arabia – a risky business?
The House of Commons Briefing Paper mentioned above is clearly enthusiastic about extending trade with Saudi Arabia. Government officials and Tory MPs locally often acknowledge the human rights problems and point out that they are frequently raised in meetings with the Saudi government. There seems however to be a general acceptance that trade with Saudi Arabia must go ahead in all circumstances, without terms and conditions or insistence on any ‘quid pro quo’ arrangement. While Labour MPs say they would take a firmer line on trade with Saudi Arabia, they could usefully spell out exactly what restrictions they plan to put in place.
Earlier this year, the North East Economic Forum enthusiastically announced its strategy for developing inward investment in Saudi Arabia and it has become increasingly apparent that companies with a North East presence are associated with the development of the Saudi megacity NEOM, which has already resulted in the forced displacement and persecution of members of the Howeitat tribe in the north of the country.
All MPs and councillors and for that matter business advisers and all other agencies who have contacts with local businesses trading with Saudi Arabia should point out the dangers inherent in doing so. Not only is there a danger of reputational damage, there is a risk of compensation claims and resulting financial damage to companies.
The key document here is on the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights which broadly states that companies have a responsibility to assess potential human rights abuses involved in their business relationships and take steps to address them. Should they fail to do so, victims of any such abuses have the right of access to an effective remedy, generally in the form of financial compensation.
In this context it is important to realise that 77% of private sector workers in Saudi Arabia are in fact foreign workers. These have to be recruited via the kafala system in which, despite supposed reforms, human rights abuses are frankly endemic up to and including slave labour and arguably human trafficking. Recent reports by Amnesty International on the abuses of Amazon Workers in Saudi Arabia as well as workers recruited to work in Qatar during the World Cup last year demonstrate both the extent of the problem and the potential liability to financial liability. Notably FIFA has already established a compensation fund for victims and it looks like Amazon will be forced to travel in the same direction. It is to be expected that similar cases could result against companies involved for example in the NEOM development.
Companies would be well advised to ensure that they are not, unwittingly or otherwise, indirectly employing exploited workers in Saudi Arabia or dealing with Saudi companies investing in this country who do so. As a minimum, they could perhaps be advised to ensure their Saudi partners are aware of the UN Guiding Principles and are prepared to work towards them.
Note: The opinions expressed in this article reflect my own personal views rather than the official views of any of the organisations referred to in it.