They were led out at dawn today, one by one, to the public killing grounds. The Seven Saudi Arabian men had been sentenced to death following what human rights groups and the UN said were deeply flawed trials conducted under Sharia law. Some of them were juveniles when they were charged with being part of a gang of thieves in the Saudi town of Abha. But that didn’t save them from the firing squad.
A few hours later, just over 1,000 miles to the north, Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall were visiting the victims of another brutal Middle Eastern dictatorship. At a refugee camp in northern Jordan they met some of the one million people who have had to flee the death and destruction now enveloping Bashar al-Assad’s Syria. Charles described the scene he saw as an “unbelievable and heartbreaking situation” while Camilla hailed the “strength of spirit” shown by the women she encountered.
But anyone expecting the Royal couple to show equivalent sympathy for the victims of Saudi Arabia’s authoritarianism when they visit the Kingdom on Friday as part of their Middle Eastern tour will be disappointed. Human rights are off the agenda. Instead, according to the press release put out by Clarence House, the themes of the visit are “military collaboration, opportunities for women in society, inter-faith dialogue, education and environmental sustainability”.
For the struggling human rights activists and reformists in the Kingdom, visits from the US and Britain are a consistent source of disappointment. While London and Washington berate Moscow for its ongoing support of the Assad regime, they rarely if ever go public with criticisms of the Al Sauds – their closest ally in the Gulf. Last week, both the US Secretary of State, John Kerry, and the Attorney General, Eric Holder, returned from separate trips to the Kingdom. Between their visits, the Saudi regime was emboldened enough to press ahead with the jailing of Mohammed Fahd al-Qahtani and Abdullah al-Hamed – two of the country’s most prominent non-violent reform advocates. In the few days between the US delegations and Prince Charles’ arrival, the King also found time to reject clemency for the Abha Seven, despite documented evidence that confessions were extracted under torture, that the men were not appointed adequate legal representation and that most of them were juveniles when they committed their alleged crimes.
Although the Prince is officially apolitical, human rights advocates have expressed dismay that while he is happy to talk about Britain’s military and commercial links to Saudi Arabia, he avoids topics such as the highest execution rates per capita in the world or something as fundamental as a woman’s right to drive.
“Prince Charles has always had the tip of his well-polished brogues in the political world and he should use his influence to tell the royal House of Saud a few home truths about the country’s dreadful human rights record,” said Kate Allen, Amnesty International’s UK Director. “Surely, arriving in the wake of controversial executions and the jailing of human rights activists Charles will want to at least broach these matters?”
Eric Goldstein, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Middle East section, said Saudi Arabia’s allies had to do more to confront the regime over its human rights abuses. “There is no public discourse on human rights from Saudi Arabia’s allies,” he said. “We think it’s critical to raise these issues publicly.” Asked whether Prince Charles should speak out he said: “We think everyone, every government, every third party that visits Saudi Arabia should make human rights a central part of the discussions with that country.”
The Independent asked a spokesman from Clarence House whether the Prince would be bringing up human rights during the visit, but was told: “The themes and agenda of the visit... are those that have been announced already.”
There is an emphasis on the role of women in the Middle East, but both Camilla and Charles are steering clear of anything remotely controversial. In Jordan, Qatar, Oman and Saudi Arabia the focus is on visiting schools and universities for women.
Saudi Arabia has some of the highest female enrolment rates in the Gulf even if the opportunities to use their degrees is massively curtailed. But there are no plans to meet any of the women who risk jail in car-driving protests, or highlight the dozens of women detained after demonstrating for the release of political prisoners.
Instead, the royal couple will meet newly appointed female members of the Shura Council, an advisory body of technocrats appointed by King Abdullah. Critics say the recent appointment of women to the council is a purely symbolic move to appease the West and will have no palpable impact on improving the lives of women in one of the most repressive countries in the world for gender equality.
“All dictators in the past and present have used women to seek international legitimacy given the prominence of global gender equality talk,” Professor Madawi al-Rasheed, an expert on Saudia Arabia at King’s College London, told The Independent. “Such visits do more damage to the human rights cause because they give recognition to a regime that continues to oppress women and men.”
Hardline regime: Saudi Arabia’s record
Saudi Arabia has the highest execution rate per capita in the world. It still executes minors and has put 23 people to death this year compared to 76 in 2012 and 79 the year before. Public beheadings and firing squads are common.
Suppression of dissent
While the West turns a blind eye to Saudi excesses against violent Islamists, it also stays silent when peaceful reformists are imprisoned. In the last few weeks the Saudis have jailed three prominent peaceful activists, including a judge.
The country remains one of the harshest places in the world to be a woman. Female Saudis cannot drive, leave their house or travel abroad without a male chaperone.