Can the EU Lead on Sanctions against Saudi Arabia?

Pier Antonio Panzeri (European Parliament)

by Eldar Mamedov

As U.S. lawmakers seek sanctions against those responsible for the disappearance and possible murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi—a mild critic of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, the country’s de facto ruler—their European counterparts are acting in parallel to demand the same from their governments.

Pier Antonio Panzeri, an Italian Socialist who chairs the European Parliament (EP) sub-committee on human rights, released a statement urging Saudi authorities to disclose Khashoggi’s whereabouts. He called on the EU and its member states to “respond strongly and reassess their relationship with Riyadh, including military sales” if the preliminary conclusion of Turkish security authorities that Khashoggi was assassinated on the premises of the Saudi consulate are confirmed. Marietje Schaake, a centrist lawmaker from Netherlands, issued an open letter to EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini calling on her “to stand ready to impose targeted sanctions against Saudi individuals as well as economic sanctions against the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.” 

Although the disappearance of Khashoggi, most likely at the hands of the Saudi agents, has triggered some long-overdue hard questions in Washington about the nature of the current Saudi regime, the European Parliament has long been outspoken on Saudi violations of human rights, both inside and outside the kingdom.

In 2016, the EP has awarded the European Union’s highest human rights prize to Raif Badawi, a liberal blogger, who is currently serving his sentence of 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes for setting up a website for public debate. Contrary to the assurances of the Saudi authorities to the visiting delegation of the sub-committee on human rights in November 2017, the information regarding Badawi’s treatment in prison has not been disclosed and an ever-increasing number of other peaceful critics and activists have been arrested since then.

In May 2018, the EP consequently adopted a resolution condemning the crackdown, particularly on women’s rights activists. Significantly, the document highlighted Mohammed bin Salman’s personal role in escalating repression, and this after his trips to the United States and Europe, during which much of the press promoted him as a “progressive reformer.” Saudi attempts to smear women activists as foreign (Qatari) agents failed to convince the MEPs. The resolution called, for the first time, for the introduction of targeted sanctions against Saudi officials responsible for human rights violations.

The European Parliament also highlighted violations outside the kingdom’s borders. On the day of Khashoggi’s disappearance, it adopted a new resolution on Yemen. The resolution condemned the atrocities committed by the Houthi rebels and highlighted their links to Iran, but the harshest criticisms were reserved for the Saudi-led coalition. Although this was not the first such resolution from the EP, it contained some new elements. For example, it called for the situation in Yemen to be referred to the International Criminal Court (ICC) and urged Yemen’s internationally recognized government to join the ICC, which would allow for the prosecution of all those responsible for the crimes committed during the conflict, even in the absence of a UN Security Council referral.

It also denounced the Saudi-led destruction of Yemeni cultural heritage, including the Old City of Sana’a and the historic city of Zabid and stressed that the coalition “will be held accountable also for such acts.”

The EP demanded an EU-wide embargo on arms sales to Saudi Arabia and, for the first time, the United Arab Emirates as well. Despite a request by the conservative European People’s Party (EPP) to delete that part, it was adopted by 353 votes to 217. And a coalition of Socialists, Greens, and the far left blocked the last minute oral amendment moved by the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) group, in which British conservatives played the leading role, to condemn the launch of “Iranian-built missiles” by the Houthis on Saudi Arabia, thus delivering a very visible and public defeat to Saudi ambitions regarding the text.

So, given the track record of the Saudi regime, what happened to Jamal Khashoggi did not come as a surprise to European politicians. The question is whether the likely murder of a well-known journalist will finally trigger what the senseless bombing of thousands of Yemenis failed to do—the imposition of real costs on Riyadh for its reckless behavior. Unlike in the United States, where the sanctions designation may be a lengthy process involving Congress and the president, EU sanctions are adopted if the Council representing the national governments so decides.

However, it must do so by unanimity. So, there is no guarantee that, should such an initiative be put on the agenda, it wouldn’t be blocked: by an aspiring autocrat like Hungary’s Viktor Orban or by a country with strong economic or military ties with Riyadh. Nothing, however, prevents governments with principled stance on human rights from imposing such sanctions. And the rest of the EU has an obligation to show solidarity with such governments against predictable Saudi wrath, just as they did in the face of a resurgent Russia.

It falls on the EU to lead on human rights in today’s world. Despite the commendable, if belated, initiative of U.S. senators to impose sanctions on Riyadh, President Donald Trump will not likely sign them into law. When asked on the matter, he callously dismissed human rights concerns in Saudi Arabia as an impediment to continued arms sales to the regime, arms that are used to kill Yemeni civilians, including children. This fits neatly with his amoral foreign policy and evident admiration for strongmen, like Mohammad bin Salman. It makes it all the more indispensable, then, for the EU to step in and demonstrate true leadership in defending human rights and fundamental decency.

This article reflects the personal views of the author and not necessarily the opinions of the European Parliament.

Eldar Mamedov

Eldar Mamedov has degrees from the University of Latvia and the Diplomatic School in Madrid, Spain. He has worked in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Latvia and as a diplomat in Latvian embassies in Washington D.C. and Madrid. Since 2007, Mamedov has served as a political adviser for the social-democrats in the Foreign Affairs Committee of the European Parliament (EP) and is in charge of the EP delegations for inter-parliamentary relations with Iran, Iraq, the Arabian Peninsula, and Mashreq.



  1. Excellent idea- The EU should step up where the US has failed and impose sanctions on the renegade Saudi regime. Have we already forgotten the uproar that followed the alleged attempt by the Russians for trying to kill an ex- spy in the UK. Why the double standards when it comes to Saudi Arabia.
    The West condemns radical Islam and related terrorism – and I agree it should.
    So why does it not condemn the country which propagates the ideology that provides the theological under pinning of this viscous movement – namely Wahabism.

  2. let the shia sell their daughters
    In France, the Shiite terror wanted to commit!

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