Saudi Lobbying in Brussels Gone Awry

Loujain al-Hathloul (Emna Mizouni via Wikimedia Commons)

by Eldar Mamedov

On February 14, the European Parliament adopted a new resolution condemning Saudi Arabia for the detention and torture of women human rights defenders. As the kingdom’s PR machine proudly advertises its supposed reforms to empower women, Riyadh jails activists who campaigned for the lifting of the driving ban, such as Loujain al-Hathloul, and smears them as agents of foreign interests (read Qatar).

The motion, adopted by a record majority of 517 votes to 10 against and 70 abstentions, addressed the broader deficiencies of the political system in Saudi Arabia. Euro MPs believe that it “remains discriminatory, effectively making women into 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.”

The resolution flies in the face of expensive Saudi efforts to promote the kingdom as a force for moderation and modernization in the Middle East. According to a recently published report by the Corporate Europe Observatory, a Brussels-based transparency watchdog, the kingdom pays MLS Brussels, one of the leading lobbying firms in the capital of the European Union, around 110,000 euro monthly for its services to the kingdom (which it apparently failed to report fully to the EU Transparency Register).
A key aspect of Saudi lobbying is outreach to the European Parliament. The visible side of it involves organizing stage-managed visits to Brussels, like a recent delegation of supposedly independent Saudi “women-pioneers,” and sending glossy dossiers to the MPs and the staff of the European Parliament. These activities try to put a positive spin on reforms on women’s rights and highlight the role of the Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman in this process.

The MPs, however, remain unconvinced. The resolution adopted on February 14 is the fourth one in the last year critical of Saudi policies. The previous ones concerned the role of the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, and the repression of women activists. The European Parliament specifically held Mohammad bin Salman responsible for that repression: it stated that “since he came to power in June 2017, many outspoken human rights defenders, activists and critics have been arbitrarily detained, or unjustly sentenced to lengthy prison terms simply for exercising their right to freedom of expression.” This must be especially upsetting for the Saudis, as it came on the heels of a warning by their state minister for foreign affairs, Adel Jubeyr, that targeting the kingdom’s leadership is a “red line.”

As to Saudi efforts to promote their progress on women’s rights, MPs deplored the existence of the male guardianship system and urged the Saudi government to immediately abolish it and repeal other laws that discriminate against women and girls.

The European Parliament also issued a number of calls on the European External Action Service (EEAS) and the governments of the member states, who can really hold Saudi Arabia accountable for its abuses. In particular, the parliament asked “to establish a unified position to ensure that the European diplomatic services in Saudi Arabia systematically use the mechanisms envisaged in the EU Guidelines on Human Rights Defenders, including public statements, diplomatic démarches, monitoring of trials and prison visits.” It also urged governments to act on the UN level, namely, to question Saudi Arabia’s membership in the Human Rights Council (HRC) and in the Commission on the Status of Women. Euro MPs also repeat their call for the appointment at the HRC of a special rapporteur on human rights in Saudi Arabia—a dubious distinction reserved for countries with particularly bad human rights records.

Despite efforts by the right-wing European People’s Party (EPP) and European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) to render the resolution toothless, the EP adopted calls for “an EU-wide embargo on the export of arms and surveillance systems and other dual-use items that may be used in Saudi Arabia for the purposes of repression against its citizens.” Equally, MPs urged the introduction of targeted sanctions “in response to breaches of human rights, including asset freezes and visa bans.” In the end, EPP overwhelmingly voted in favor of the resolution as a whole, despite these points.

The European Parliament resolution compounds a bad week for Saudi Arabia in Brussels. On Tuesday, the European Commission unveiled its proposal to include the kingdom in its black list of countries with “strategic deficiencies” in tackling money laundering and terrorism financing. Based on its independent investigation, the Commission concluded that Saudi Arabia poses a “high risk for the EU financial system.” In practice, that would imply much more stringent due diligence obligations for all EU financial entities involved in dealings with Saudi Arabia. The list still has to be confirmed by the national governments and the European Parliament, but even a proposal to include Saudi Arabia is a heavy blow to the country’s image.

There were also embarrassing revelations about Riyadh paying the College of Europe, a venerable Bruges-based institution where scores of Eurocrats were educated, to set up private meetings among Saudi ambassadors, EU officials, and members of the European Parliament. These prompted Euro MPs to demand that the EEAS and the Commission “look into the lack of listings of Saudi Arabia within the EU transparency register.”

None of these criticisms means that the EU, be it the Parliament or the Commission, is closed to any dialogue and engagement with Saudi Arabia. Indeed, the parliament in its latest resolution “expresses readiness to hold a constructive and open dialogue with the Saudi authorities, including parliamentarians, on human rights and the country’s troubling regional role,” among other issues. Saudi Arabia is a key player in the Middle East and an important partner for the EU. Nobody advocates isolating it, for that will not make the Middle East more stable and secure, just as isolating Iran did not make it so.

However, the decisive adoption by the European Parliament of another strongly worded resolution on Saudi Arabia is a clear political message that perceptions will change only as a result of real reform in the kingdom—not expensive and, as it turns out, ineffective lobbying campaigns.

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.