West 'should cut ties with Saudi Arabia' over torture of female activists

West 'should cut ties with Saudi Arabia' over torture of female activists
British broadcaster Mehdi Hasan and Saudi-British Professor Madawi al-Rasheed were among prominent names calling for a boycott of the Saudi regime during a heated debate in London on Monday.
5 min read
05 February, 2019
There is growing backlash against Saudi Arabia in the West over its record [Karim Traboulsi]
The West should fully reconsider or even cut ties with the Saudi Arabian regime over its atrocious human rights record and destabilising activities, according to a motion endorsed by an overwhelming majority, following a heated debate in London.

The debate on Monday, led by a prominent British MP defending relations with Saudi Arabia, and a Saudi dissident professor arguing in favour of boycotting Riyadh, was organised by Intelligence Squared and moderated by the BBC's award-winning chief international correspondent Lyse Doucet.

Addressing a packed hall at the Emmanuel Centre in Westminster, British broadcaster Mehdi Hasan and Saudi-British Professor Madawi al-Rasheed urged the audience to endorse severing the West's "unconditional support" for the Saudi regime. 

From Loujain al-Hathloul to Jamal Khashoggi, Hassan reminded the audience of the plight of Saudi journalists, bloggers, activists – including women – and clerics who have been detained, tortured or murdered outright by the Saudi regime.

"Asking Saudi Arabia to lead the fight against terrorism is like asking the mafia to lead the fight against organised crime," Hassan told a laughing audience, countering an oft-cited argument that relations with Riyadh are conducive to stability.

For her part, Rasheed, an exile whose Saudi citizenship was revoked in 2005 for criticising the authorities in Riyadh on television, said that the much-touted reforms of Saudi de-facto ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman are a lie that has brought horror upon the kingdom and caused an unprecedented refugee crisis

"Saudi Arabia is on the verge of implosion... having destabilised the region, kidnapping Lebanon's prime minister, intervening against democratic movements in Bahrain and bombing Yemen," she told the audience.

She urged the West, especially the British government that she said played a large part in creating the regime of Al Saud, to "end their unconditional support for the Saudi regime".

Speaking to The New Arab after the conclusion of the debate, Rasheed repeated the need for a new kind of scrutiny of relations with Saudi Arabia, different from the usual Anglo-American whitewashing and outright collusion with Saudi violations.

"Soft diplomatic pressure will never change anything... it took the British four years to convince Saudi Arabia to agree to some kind of negotiations on Yemen while absurdly helping the Saudis get a seat on the UN Human Rights Council" despite its atrocious record, she said. 
Saudi Arabia is on the verge of implosion... after it destabilised the region, kidnapping Lebanon's prime minister, intervening against democratic movements in Bahrain and bombing Yemen
- Madawi al-Rasheed
Defending Saudi Arabia... reluctantly

Following two rounds of voting, the audience overwhelmingly endorsed the motion calling for curtailing Western ties with Saudi Arabia.

Despite their best efforts, the pro-Saudi side led by Crispin Blunt, a Conservative MP known for his support for close ties with Riyadh, and Egyptian-born Middle East analyst Mamoun Fandy, could not sway the audience. Loud heckles during the debate and the Q&A session underscored the large hostility to Saudi Arabia's government.

Fandy sought to foreground the importance of Riyadh for Muslims around the world, saying any notion of cutting ties with an important nation such as Saudi Arabia was naive and idealistic in a complex world.

To jeers from the audience, he also said the proponents of the motion should put the "low number of detainees" in Saudi Arabia in perspective and compare it against worse abuses in Iran and his home country of Egypt, "where tens of thousands of political detainees" are imprisoned.

Less stale and predictable however was the intervention by Blunt.

The Conservative MP for Reitgate and Banstead is known for his support for Saudi Arabia and defence of arms exports to Riyadh (he famously told the BBC the should roll out the red carpet for Mohammed bin Salman during his controversial visit to London). In 2015, he met with MbS in Riyadh and said he was left impressed with his "strategic grasp" of matters.

Although he dismissed the call for ending ties to Saudi Arabia, claiming the best way to influence Saudi behaviour was through leverage provided by arms exports and trade, Blunt surprised the audience during his intervention against the motion when he said he feels "disappointed by the state of the kingdom" and has "great anxiety" for its future.

So dire are Saudi Arabia's violations that even long-standing friends of the Saudi government such as Blunt and US Senator Lindsey Graham are scrambling to distance themselves from Riyadh, and calling for accountability. 

Only on Monday, the Detention Review Panel (DRP) chaired by Blunt published a damning report that said Riyadh's treatment of eight women activists, led by Loujain al-Hathloul, and four male supporters could qualify as torture, a crime of universal jurisdiction in international law.

Blunt told Anadolu Agency the Saudi authorities failed to respond to their two formal requests to visit the activists.

"Our conclusion is that, on the weight of the available evidence, it is almost certain that allegations of mistreatment of these detainees are true," he said, echoing the DRP's findings.

The DRP said in a report on Monday that activists are subjected to torture and kept in cruel and inhumane conditions in Saudi Arabia.

Blunt also told Anadolu that a "not very open and transparent" trial process is going on in Saudi Arabia regarding the case of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

"All taken together, they (these actions) send a relentless message that there is no space in Saudi Arabia for an active civil society," he added.

Pressed by The New Arab in a post-debate chat about the future of UK-Saudi relations, Blunt said everything now depended on whether the Saudis cooperate, accept accountability and open up their civil space.

"MbS must show he has learned something (from the Khashoggi affair) and become a wise king," he said, echoing a comparison he made earlier in the debate with medieval English King Henry II, who had Thomas Becket murdered but went on to rule with humility, as Blunt put it.

Follow Karim Traboulsi on Twitter @kareemios