by Eldar Mamedov
At the beginning of December a group of “independent women-pioneers” from Saudi Arabia visited Brussels. The delegation had meetings in the European Parliament (EP), European Commission and think-tanks. The announced purpose of the visit was to hold a “frank dialogue” on the Saudi reform plan, Vision 2030, and the empowerment of women supposedly taking place in the kingdom under the leadership of Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman, known as MbS.
The timing of the visit was conspicuous. It took place just as the Saudi reputation in Europe hit rock bottom following the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a mild critic of the regime, and several European governments began to openly consider imposing sanctions on Saudi Arabia.
If the aim of the visit was to improve the Saudi image in Europe, it backfired. The delegation never looked really independent and at times seemed to be out of its depth. When, for example, its members were asked how the talk of female empowerment squares with the arrests and reported torture of women activists, they just parroted the official Saudi line that these women were not real activists, but worked for foreign interests—read Qatar, Saudi Arabia’s regional rival. Add to this the fact that the Saudi diplomats, the representatives of Al-Arabiya (the official Saudi TV channel), and, oddly enough, the ambassador of the United Arab Emirates to the EU, accompanied the delegation to some of these meetings. In the words of one senior EU official involved in Gulf matters, this looked more like a farce than an honest attempt at dialogue.
Although this exercise hardly won many new converts to the “MbS-driven Saudi reform” narrative, it may have served a different agenda: cementing Saudi Arabia’s emerging alliance with the European political right wing, spanning from the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP), the biggest political bloc in the European Parliament, to the far right.
During the current legislature, which started in 2014, Saudi Arabia became a highly partisan issue in the European Parliament. The house approved various resolutions condemning Saudi Arabian-led attacks against civilians in Yemen and repeatedly demanded an EU-wide arms embargo against Saudi Arabia and targeted sanctions over human rights abuses—including those committed against women activists and over the Khashoggi killing. It also awarded the European Union’s top human rights prize to Raif Badawi, a Saudi dissident imprisoned and serially flogged for his liberal ideas. All of these initiatives were won thanks to an alliance of left of center forces. Conservatives, from the EPP to the right, largely opposed these moves.
So, it came as no surprise that most of the political interlocutors of the Saudi delegation in Brussels hailed from the right wing. As seen in Al-Arabiya’s short video, the group had a meeting with the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) bloc, the third-largest in the EP. The ECR is considered to be Saudi-friendly. It also held, controversially, a bureau meeting in Bahrain, a de-facto Saudi satellite, in March 2018.
Meeting the Saudi women, Sajjad Karim, a senior British member of ECR, was positively gushing about the “comprehensive nature of the reform process in Saudi Arabia”. Today’s Tories may be just about within the confines of a presentable centre-right, but they are allied in the ECR with some overtly Islamophobic forces, such as the Danish People’s Party and the Sweden Democrats, a party with neo-fascist roots. Among the ECR’s members is also the Dutch Calvinist party, which until 2006 barred women from joining and advocates for a re-establishment of the death penalty in the Netherlands. Bas Belder, the party’s leader in the EP, is a staunch supporter of Israel’s right-wing government and vice-chair of the EP delegation for relations with Israel. During the EP debate on Khashoggi’s murder on October 24, Belder accused him of being a “convinced Islamist, a spiritual leader of Muslim Brotherhood” and compared him to the late terrorist al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden.
Another staunch defender of Saudi Arabia is Mario Borghezio from the Italian party Lega (League), who sits in the bloc of Europe of Nations and Freedom (ENF), a collection of extreme right parties. In the debate on Khashoggi, Borghezio mostly attacked Turkey and linked the slain journalist to Qatar and Muslim Brotherhood, implying that these alleged ties should temper the outrage over his murder.
This indulgence with Saudi Arabia is reflected in the voting record of these right-wing groups. On December 12, the European Parliament voted on the annual report on the EU common foreign and security policy. The socialists tabled an amendment condemning Saudi Arabia for the war in Yemen, and calling, once again, for EU-wide sanctions over Khashoggi’s murder. The EPP voted against the part on Yemen, but supported the call for Khashoggi sanctions—it would have been politically difficult for them to act otherwise, as some of the governments representing this political family, to their credit, are already implementing these measures, notably Germany.
The ECR, conversely, voted in favour of the part on Yemen—because the amendment also blamed the Houthi rebels for the war in that country, although without the “Iranian-backed” moniker attached. But they either abstained or voted against the demand to impose sanctions over the Khashoggi case. The far right toxic crew of the French National Front, Italian Lega, UK Independence Party and assorted extremists either abstained or voted against both parts of the measure. In the end, though, the full amendment passed in a landslide.
Policymakers in Riyadh may feel that riding the right-wing tide in European politics is a smart strategy. However, they should weigh the costs of this alliance with European Islamophobes for Saudi Arabia’s self-image as the leader of the Muslim world and custodian of the Holy Mosques. And it’s not even clear that this strategy is working: although the extreme right is expected to make gains in European parliamentary elections in 2019, it is far from certain that it will have any real influence in shaping EU policies. Thus the only credible way for Saudi Arabia to engage the EU is to work with the entire spectrum of European opinion—including, or perhaps especially, its critics. Even more importantly, making its reform rhetoric match realities on the ground would do far more to improve the perception of Saudi Arabia in Europe than bizarre propaganda stunts like sending stage-managed delegations to Brussels.
This article reflects the personal views of the author and not necessarily the opinions of the European Parliament.