The coalition between the West and Saudi Arabia has been fractured with its response to Canada. It is time for the status quo to change.
Recent developments could prove to be a watershed moment for anyone hoping that talk of international human rights is not simply a mirage. Saudi Arabia has cut ties with Canada after the latter expressed concern for Samar Badawi, a women’s rights activist who helped head the campaign to allow Saudi women the right to drive. In an ominous tweet featuring an image reminiscent of the 9/11 attacks, a now-deleted (formerly verified) Saudi Arabian account called “infographic_ksa” warned of ‘not interfering’ in the affairs of others.
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is arguably the most unabashed perpetrator of human rights violations, on a level paralleled only by armed groups. There is no concept of freedom of religion, and those who do leave Islam are punished with the death penalty.
There are other countries that are statistically dangerous for women, where circumstance, particularly economic conditions, determine the course of a woman’s life. In Saudi Arabia, however, to be born female is to be born a slave, where the male guardianship system treats women as minors without legal agency, irrespective of their age. This is a country in which a surgeon has to seek her minor son’s permission to attend a conference; a country where much fanfare erupted over recent legislation allowing women to drive, while it has silently jailed and oppressed the activists who fought for the same; one of the last few countries which carries out executions by beheading. The reader is invited to recall the searing outrage and shock that swept across the globe when ISIS beheadings began.
A country famed for its wealth, regularly claiming to be the epicentre of the Muslim Ummah consistently flouts ethical conventions instead of paving the way in the treatment of refugees and other minorities. It has birthed and funded the erstwhile leader of Al-Qaeda, and has dutifully turned the other way when it comes to the cascading consequences that have followed the fight between the US and terror groups. But more importantly, Saudi Arabia continues to nurture one of the most virulent, extremist forms of Islam that wreaks havoc wherever it lands, Wahhabism.
There are innumerable reasons why Saudi Arabia should have been shunned and isolated. Their control of oil and the wealth that has flowed from it have been the handcuffs that have cowed governments who ostensibly stood for human rights. Despite weak protestations and much trumpeting about the respect for human rights by prominent European and North American leaders, the lure of liquid gold has long proven too powerful to be countered by a respect for dignity or humanity. As advocates and activists for human rights in Saudi Arabia have languished, governments that repeatedly claim to stand for human rights have abandoned them.
“Despite weak protestations and much trumpeting about the respect for human rights by prominent European and North American leaders, the lure of liquid gold has long proven too powerful to be countered by a respect for dignity or humanity.”
As Saudi Arabia continues to bomb Yemen into oblivion, escalating a massive humanitarian catastrophe and refusing to permit the compromises necessary to avert the mass starvation that looms, other developed countries have quietly done their part, providing funding, arms, and information to the Saudi-led coalition. Desperation for arms buyers and the gold that so readily drips from Saudi coffers have kept these self-declared stalwarts of human rights quiet. So while citizens fume, activists protest, and communities curse over the news, wishing that their governments would stand up to the regime, politicians have comfortably carried out backroom deals, smiled for photo-ops and sanctioned arms sales worth billions of dollars.
Finally, it seems the dam has broken. Powerful countries can no longer pretend that Saudi Arabia is anything but a repressive, authoritarian regime, given to temper tantrums and a peremptory dismissal of any demand that they act human. The unspoken coalition between the West and Saudi Arabia has been fractured, and one of the most prominent members of western alliances has been rebuffed. It may well be that a US led by Trump, whose disdain for traditional allies could not have been clearer and a Britain weakened by Brexit may still be beholden to Saudi gold. But in this issue, developed and developing countries have to take a stand and rally with Canada.
There are, and will be, other ways of securing oil, other avenues to make money. Western countries in particular should face up to the grim truth–that it is the poisonous ideology of Wahhabism seeping out of Saudi that has left hundreds of their citizens dead, their communities fractured, and their minorities with split loyalties. It is Saudi money that has funded extremist mosques all over Europe, that has left European citizens terrified of vans and trucks, that has necessitated barricades and walls. It is a nation belligerent about international law and human rights, preferring instead to trumpet vague notions of interference in sovereign affairs to mask its brutality. Human Rights are universal. They are everyone’s business, and it is time Saudi Arabia fell into step with the rest of the civilized world–or fell out. The lighting of monuments in national colours, the hashtags, the mourning for those who have fallen victim to extremism is meaningless if at this crucial juncture, countries refuse to stand up for humanity.
“Human Rights are universal. They are everyone’s business, and it is time Saudi Arabia fell into step with the rest of the civilized world–or fell out.”
It may have been that the cogs of international diplomacy would have continued to turn slowly, wretchedly, with every government functionary mandated to keep the status quo while gnashing their teeth. In a reaction that is typical of such a regime, the first knock to this comforting illusion has been delivered. Seeing it through is perhaps the greatest opportunity the international community will have, for some time to come, to protect their own citizens, reach out to beleaguered and tortured activists, and set a new relationship in place.
Overblown fears of Iran and established wisdom that Iran must be controlled by keeping Saudi Arabia supported has long informed the western approach. The time is ripe to try a new one.
If other countries are tempted to consider their potential economic losses, it would be wise to recall the reaction of the other Arab states to Saudi Arabia’s move to isolate and force Qatar, that they rapidly backed up a regional ally–whether or not it was successful. In fact, this expected alignment is happening even now, as Bahrain, Egypt and Russia support Saudi Arabia, considering it unacceptable for one country to lecture another on human rights while the US and UK urge ‘caution and restraint’.
The West would also do well to realise that if they fail to take Canada’s side on this, no further protestations of human rights will have any impact anywhere. Let us remember that after Obama’s red line on use of chemical weapons in Syria was crossed without consequence, the international community was left with no negotiating power. Allowing Canada to navigate this alone would be tantamount to abandoning any semblance of western solidarity or even support in such issues. Saudi Arabia is rallying other repressive regimes intent on using sovereignty as a cloak – where will the rest of the international community fall?
If the rest of the developed world as well as the developing world fail to speak now, they will be in the unenviable position of having to forever hold their peace.
Lawyer, activist against sexual violence and exploitation. You can follow her on twitter @lblwcri.