by Eldar Mamedov
On October 29, the European Parliament awarded the EU’s top human rights prize—the Sakharov prize for freedom of expression—to Saudi blogger Raif Badawi. Saudi authorities accused Badawi of blasphemy and sentenced him to 1,000 lashes and 10 years in prison for expressing, among other things, his belief that Muslims, Jews, Christians, and peoples of other faiths, as well as atheists, deserve to be treated equally.
Saudi authorities or those EU governments with close ties with Riyadh will not welcome this fresh focus on human rights. But any short-term inconveniences will be more than made up by long-term benefits for the peoples of Saudi Arabia, the region, and the EU´s standing in the Middle East.
Raif Badawi may have received the Sakharov prize because his case became well known worldwide and emblematic of abuses in his country. But significantly the award highlights the broader picture of human rights in Saudi Arabia.
Human Rights and Regional Affairs
A few days before the award, the Supreme Court of Saudi Arabia rejected an appeal of the execution of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, a Shiite cleric well known for his criticisms of the Kingdom’s discriminatory political and religious practices. If King Salman, as expected, signs the execution order, al-Nimr will be killed for his political activism. His execution will look like an attempt to reassure the Wahhabi clerical establishment and the society at large after successive failures to stand up to “Iranian-Shiite aggression.” These failures include the ruinous military campaign in Yemen and Iran’s participation in the Vienna talks on Syria, an anathema to the Saudis.
Given al-Nimr’s stature, his execution risks igniting fresh protests in Saudi Arabia’s Shiite-majority eastern province and precipitating a new round of tensions with Tehran. This, in turn, would invite the supporters of the Islamic State, of which there are plenty in the Kingdom, to compete even more vigorously with the ruling Al Saud-Wahhabi alliance for the title of greatest enemy of the Shiites. In this way Saudi human rights abuses inflame sectarianism and foster instability in the country and the region.
The growing realization of the link between domestic oppression and destructive foreign policies, as seen in Saudi actions in Yemen and Bahrain, is putting more pressure on European leaders such as British Prime Minister David Cameron and French President Francois Hollande, both of whom enjoy close diplomatic and military relations with Riyadh and seldom, if ever, raise human rights issues in the Kingdom. Yet, members of Cameron´s own Conservative party in the EP co-sponsored, together with other political groups, the candidature of Badawi for the Sakharov prize. Similarly, French Socialists went along with their political group in the EP, Socialists & Democrats, in supporting Badawi. They did so despite the availability of alternative candidates and the fact that, as one EU official wryly noted, “Badawi is bad for contracts.”
The award in itself would hardly prompt the UK and France to follow in Sweden’s footsteps and cancel arms sales to Saudi Arabia. But increasing public scrutiny and awareness would at least allow the EU governments to play a “god cop” next to the Parliament´s “bad cop” and perhaps squeeze out some Saudi concessions around its more egregious violations. At the very least, it would raise the costs of doing business as usual with Saudi Arabia.
Raising human rights issues in Saudi Arabia should not be seen as a kind of Western intrusion. Ironically, some of the most acerbic critics of Iran’s or Russia’s human rights records are giving a free pass to Saudi Arabia. Others think that the Kingdom is too tribal, too medieval, too lethargic, or too different to be held to universal norms.
This highly misrepresents modern Saudi society. As Ali Ayami, the founder and executive director of the Washington-based Center for Democracy and Human Rights in Saudi Arabia, notes, many Saudi youth are “not crazy about repressive Sharia law” and aspire to freedom and social justice like their counterparts in the rest of the Arab world. Saudi women in particular are becoming increasingly vocal about their long-denied rights. Many well-educated and informed Saudis are scathingly critical of their country’s failings. Ayami also challenges the Wahhabi orthodoxy by reminding it that Sufis, Shiites, Ismailis, and other minorities “have existed long, long before the Wahhabi movement first emerged in the Arabian peninsula in the middle of the 18th century.”
The royal family itself is far from being immune to reformist aspirations, as revealed by letters published in The Guardian by an anonymous London-based Saudi prince. There are persistent rumors of a “palace coup” in the making that would supposedly bring to the throne Ahmed Ben Abdul-Aziz, a younger and more liberal brother of the current king. In this context, awarding a prestigious international human rights prize to a Saudi dissident only reinforces the case of the liberal reformists.
Another lever the EU has to push Saudi Arabia toward gradual reform is the country’s impending fiscal difficulties. According to the International Monetary Fund, with the price of oil at $50 per barrel, Saudi Arabia will run out of financial assets to support spending within five years if the government maintains current policies. Add to this the cost of the Yemen war. Although a financial crisis, according to some estimations, may not be imminent, the country should nevertheless prepare for a post-fossil fuel future, and that means opening the country up to more outside influences. As European Parliament MP Alyn Smith, who lived in Saudi Arabia and knows the country well, says, training and education are key, and Europe has a lot to offer to Saudi students, academics, and researchers.
Last but not least, awarding the Sakharov prize to a Saudi blogger addresses allegations that Europe maintains double standards on human rights. As the EU re-launches its high-level political dialogue with Iran, of which human rights is a part, Iranian hardliners will not be able to dismiss so easily human rights criticisms by arguing that the EU does not hold Riyadh to the same standards as Tehran. Another benefit is that the human rights situation in other Gulf countries, which is often no better than in Saudi Arabia, will now also be put in a spotlight.
Awarding the Sakharov prize to Raif Badawi is an important symbolic victory for those who care about human rights and freedom of expression. But it is only the beginning of what promises to be a long and bumpy road toward real change in Saudi Arabia. The first milestone on this road will be to free Badawi so that he can travel to Strasbourg in December to collect his well-deserved prize. Likewise, the EU should insist that all other political prisoners are released too.
This article reflects the personal views of the author and not necessarily the opinions of the European Parliament.