by Eldar Mamedov
In a rare move, the European Parliament (EP) recently adopted a strongly worded resolution condemning human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia by a vote of 460 to 153. The focus of the resolution was Raif Badawi, a blogger that the Saudi authorities charged with blasphemy and sentenced to 1,000 lashes, 10 years of prison, and a 228,000 euro fine for founding a liberal website. But the resolution took a broader view on the human rights situation in Saudi Arabia.
The European MPs didn´t mince words. Although they took note of some cautious reforms undertaken by the late king Abdullah, they charged that the Saudi political and social system “remains profoundly undemocratic, makes women and Shia Muslims second-class citizens, seriously discriminates against the country’s large foreign workforce and severely represses all voices of dissent.” They portrayed the Badawi case “as a symbol of the Kingdom’s characteristic policies of intolerance and extremist interpretation of Islamic law.” In particularly damning paragraphs, the EP took Saudi Arabia to task for playing “a leading role in financing, disseminating and promoting worldwide a particularly extremist interpretation of Islam, which, in its most sectarian vision, has inspired terrorist organisations such as the so-called Islamic State and al?Qaeda.” In language that is certain to provoke Riyadh´s ire, the MPs noted that the so-called Islamic State (ISIS or IS) and Saudi Arabia prescribe near-identical punishments for a host of crimes, and that Saudi claims to be a partner to the EU in fighting IS and al-Qaeda would have been more credible “if it did not engage in anachronistic and extremist practices, such as public beheadings, stoning and other forms of torture, similar to those committed by IS.”
By way of conclusion, the MPs asked the EU and the Member States “to reconsider their relationship with Saudi Arabia, in a way that allows it to pursue its economic, energy and security interests, whilst not undermining the credibility of its core human rights commitments.”
This unprecedented criticism of Saudi Arabia, officially an “ally,” by a EU institution contrasts with the relatively milder treatment accorded to Iran, an official “foe” and Saudi Arabia´s regional antagonist. In its last resolution adopted in May 2014, the EP criticized Iran for its human rights abuses, but the overall tone was much more positive, highlighting an array of possible areas of cooperation.
Impact of the Resolution
The EP resolution does not herald an imminent realignment in the EU´s regional priorities. The EU´s foreign policy is still shaped mainly by the Council of Member States, the highest body representing the EU governments, not the parliament. The Council still treats Saudi Arabia as an important partner. Donald Tusk, the president of the EU Council, spoke of the late king Abdullah as “a strong partner for the European Union, a man of great vision and leadership” and expressed hope that his successor King Salman “will build on King Abdullah’s achievements to further promote modernisation and reforms for the benefit of the Kingdom and its citizens.” Iran, by contrast, is still subject to a host of EU sanctions, and the EU chose to condition normalization of relations on an agreement involving Iran´s nuclear program.
Still, the EP resolution sends an important political message. In the wake of the terrorist attacks in Paris and Copenhagen, it echoes a growing realization among policymakers, diplomats, and the wider security community that Saudi Arabia´s track record of supporting extremist groups may be a root cause of the terrorist threat, while Iran´s opposition to IS and al-Qaeda could help Europe tackle this threat. The prospects for regional cooperation with Iran in countering IS, al-Qaeda, and also the Taliban, are a staple of think-tank conferences in Europe these days. The idea of Iran´s potentially stabilizing role in the region is becoming mainstream.
The resolution can also have some useful practical consequences. First, it will shed light on some of the EU states´ bilateral dealings with Saudi Arabia. France, Germany, Sweden, and the United Kingdom have all signed significant arms deals with Saudi Arabia. But these deals run counter to the principles established in the EU Common Position on arms export control, including respect for human rights in the country of final destination; a ban on exports that would provoke or prolong armed conflicts or aggravate existing tensions or conflicts; and the preservation of regional peace, security, and stability. Arms sales to Riyadh fuel an arms race in an already combustible region, so they most definitely “aggravate the existing tensions” and run contrary to the “preservation of regional peace, security and stability.”
An Uncomfortably Close Relationship
The close relationship of some EU member states with Saudi Arabia is also destabilising in other respects. France is instructive in this regard. Paris has taken the most hawkish line on Iran in the context of the EU3+3 nuclear negotiations with Iran. Riyadh has been deeply skeptical of these negotiations from the outset. On Syria, it is France that steadfastly refuses to contemplate any role for Iran as a potentially key actor to bring the civil war to an end—despite the obvious price such obtuseness carries for the Syrian people. But again, this is fully in line with the preferences of Saudi Arabia, for which Iran´s involvement in talks on Syria is a major taboo.
And it might not be a coincidence that the chair of the EP´s delegation for relations with the Arabian Peninsula countries, including Saudi Arabia, is Michelle Alliot-Marie, a former French defence minister in the Sarkozy administration—precisely at a time when French ties with the Gulf countries were cemented. Alliot-Marie was absent during the vote on the resolution on Saudi Arabia. Incidentally she is an active member of the Friends of Free Iran network in the EP, a lobby group for the MKO, an exiled Iranian opposition group implacably opposed to the current regime in Iran and financed, according to some sources, by Riyadh.
Another area that requires a close scrutiny, which the EP resolution referenced, is Saudi-originated financial backing for al-Qaeda. As revealed by the SwissLeaks scandal, a number of Saudi clients of HSBC allegedly used the bank for money transfers to al-Qaeda. Zacarias Moussaoui, the former Al-Qaeda operative now in federal prison in the United States, has pointed to Saudi princes as principal patrons of Al-Qaeda. His testimony is another reminder why it is high time to finally declassify the 28 pages of the 9/11 Report dealing with the Saudi role in the attacks. A bipartisan group of US congressmen has called on President Obama to do so. Since the United States and EU are partners in the fight against terror, this issue is not exclusively an American interest, and the EU should join these requests.
A much more aggressive follow-up on the European level is also needed on the Saudi-funded dissemination of Wahhabi hate speech, as pointed out in the EP resolution.
Last but not least, the adoption of this resolution makes it harder for Iran to deflect European criticism on the country’s human rights record. In the past, whenever the EU criticized Iran, Iranian officials were quick to point to Europe´s silence on Saudi abuses as a proof of its alleged double standards. This will no longer be the case. Improving Iran´s own record would no doubt make the realignment away from Saudi Arabia and toward Iran politically more acceptable for key constituencies in Europe, with concomitant benefits for Europe, Iran, and stability in the Middle East.
This article reflects the personal views of the author and not necessarily the opinions of the European Parliament.