Saudi-Iranian Rivalry in the European Parliament

Adel al-Jubeir meets with Federica Mogherini

by Eldar Mamedov

Saudi-Iranian rivalry is not limited to the Middle East but also plays out in the ministries and parliaments outside the region. Such was the case this week in Strasbourg, where the European Parliament adopted two human-rights-related resolutions: on the situation of the dual EU-Iranian nationals imprisoned in Iran and the recent arrests of women’s rights activists in Saudi Arabia.

On Iran, MEPs were careful not to make conclusive judgments on the culpability of all the arrested dual nationals. But they criticized the treatment to which the detainees have been subjected: solitary confinement, lack of access to the lawyers of their choice and to embassies of their countries (in practice, Iran treats dual nationals as Iranians only), lack of adequate medical care and state-sponsored smear campaigns based on vaguely defined national security crimes. According to credible reports by respected human rights organizations, this is a fair assessment of the abuses committed by the Iranian authorities responsible for these arrests.

Even after concluding the 2015 nuclear deal—the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)— the EU has maintained semi-adversarial relations with Iran. The EU still applies a host of non-nuclear sanctions, including for serious human rights violations. On April 12, those were extended by another year. So, the EU is expected to criticize Iran.

By contrast, influential EU member states such as Great Britain and France consider Saudi Arabia an ally and friend. The idealism of dedicated human rights defenders notwithstanding, in the real world perceived friends and allies tend to get much more leeway for their bad behavior than perceived adversaries. So, whenever Western legislatures or governments criticize Saudi Arabia, it is always noteworthy.

True, the EP has done this before, when it took Saudi Arabia to task for spreading Wahhabism worldwide or repeatedly demanded an EU-wide arms embargo against Riyadh for violations of international humanitarian law in Yemen. But what makes this resolution particularly meaningful is the changed context. It was the first adopted by the EP after Saudi Arabia embarked on an ambitious effort to improve its image in the West. Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman’s well-publicized trip to Europe was only the tip of the iceberg. Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir already visited Brussels several times in 2018 and was very generous with his time with visiting EP delegations. Saudi Arabia also decided to open a permanent representation to the EU, separate from its bilateral embassy in Belgium. Wooing European officials and business people with the promise of Vision 2030 as the “goldmine” of economic opportunities is a key part of this effort.

In addition, Trump’s decision to withdraw from the JCPOA emboldened the Saudis to think that Europe could now be swayed by its transatlantic ally to take a harder line against Iran, abandon its policy of balanced engagement in the Middle East, and join the US and Saudi Arabia in their efforts to isolate Iran.

Within this context, the scope and tough language of the resolution came as a shock to the Saudi officials. Although the immediate trigger was the crackdown on women’s rights activists campaigning against the ban on women driving and pushing for the abolition of male guardianship, the resolution goes much further than simply expressing concern over the detentions.

Thus, MEPs note that

Saudi Arabia has some of the tightest restrictions imposed on women, the Saudi political and social system remains undemocratic and discriminatory, makes women second-class citizens, allows no freedom of religion and belief, seriously discriminates against the country’s large foreign workforce and severely represses all voices of dissent.  

They are further “dismayed by the existence of the male guardianship system” and the “prevalence of gender-based violence in Saudi Arabia,” among other problems.

The MEPs also made it clear that they were not impressed by Mohammad bin Salman´s glitzy PR campaign:

whereas the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman Al Saud has offered rhetorical support for women’s rights reforms, especially during his tour in Europe and the United States, but such reforms have so far been limited, and the male guardianship system, the most serious impediment to women’s rights, remains largely intact; whereas, moreover, he has overseen a widespread crackdown on prominent activists, lawyers and human rights defenders, which has intensified since he began consolidating control over the country’s security institutions

In the operational part of the document, the MEPs note that the “ongoing repression of human rights defenders, including women’s rights defenders, undermines the credibility of the reform process in the country.” Given the gravity of the situation, they asked for the first time that EU member states push in the UN Human Rights Council for an appointment of a special rapporteur for Saudi Arabia, a dubious distinction reserved for countries deemed to have the worst human rights record (there is a special rapporteur on Iran). Also in a first, the EP demanded an introduction of targeted measures (euphemism for sanctions) against those responsible for human rights violations in Saudi Arabia. The MEPs also criticized the country´s “troubling role” in the region.

These proposals, although spearheaded by the progressive bloc in the EP (roughly 48% of the seats), gained a surprisingly high degree of support across the political spectrum. The roll call vote reveal that a vast majority of members of the main center-right group—the European People´s Party (EPP)—voted in favor of sanctions against Saudi Arabia. This must be especially shocking for the Saudis, since they count a number of influential friends in the EPP, the largest bloc in the chamber. Traditionally, the EPP was very reluctant to criticize Saudi Arabia. But this time, the final result shows overwhelming support for the motion: 525 in favor, 72 abstentions, and only 29 against.

Although this resolution is non-binding, the overwhelming majority support in the EP gives an ample political mandate to the EU governments and Federica Mogherini, the EU foreign policy chief, to take concrete steps to rein in objectionable Saudi policies on human rights and in the region—by dialogue if possible or by sanctions if necessary. This is not about Saudi-bashing but about striving to uphold a principled position on human rights, devoid of geopolitical considerations. And it certainly confirms that the EU is not jumping on the anti-Iran bandwagon.

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. Elder

    Your wording is wrong. It is not Iran, or Iranians, that are committing human rights atrocities. It is the Ayatollah regime.

    Don’t incriminate Iran or Iranians.

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