13.12.2013 Author: Maxim Egorov

Saudi Arabia and Human Rights


Source: Flickr

November 12, the UN General Assembly elected 14 new members of the Human Rights Council, a subsidiary body of the UN, which replaced the completely discredited Human Rights Commission in 2006. Among other members, this body included Saudi Arabia for the third time, which won an impressive 140 votes during the election.

International non-governmental organization Human Rights Watch noted that five of the newly elected countries, including Saudi Arabia, systematically rejected UN demands to let in inspection teams sent to investigate cases of human rights violations. Saudi Arabia has done this seven times.

Within the month, the Saudi press simultaneously glorified this decision of the UN General Assembly (on the election of KSA (Kingdom of Saudi Arabia) to the HRC), and criticized both the UN itself, the Security Council, on which Saudi Arabia refused to work on October 18, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. That is the very declaration that it recognizes, even if with some reservations (albeit in a very peculiar way – in December 1948, the Saudi delegation to the United Nations, like other Arabs, abstained from voting on the Declaration), as well as a number of regional agreements – Declaration of Human Rights in Islam (adopted by the OIC (Organization of Islamic Cooperation) in 1990) and Arab Charter on Human Rights (resolution of the LAS (League of Arab States) in 1994). Sometimes, authors managed to criticize the United Nations Declaration as the “Western product of imperialist powers that do not respect human rights themselves”, “a tool to justify their interference in the affairs of other states”, and to praise it for being “more humane” in the same article. Therefore, it was written so by a certain Ali Al-Shrimi in a liberal newspaper, according to Saudi standards, of course, The Al-Watan, in an article on December 7, 2013 “Human Rights – Western Product and Misconception”.

The dualism in Saudi perception of the UN Declaration of Human Rights can be understood. On the one hand, Saudi Arabia is a strategic ally of the U.S. in the region, like Israel. Therefore, as the saying goes, it “must conform” to Western standards of human rights. All the agencies necessary to report to Washington were established at the beginning of this century – the Commission on Human Rights (the public agency) and the NGO (non-governmental organization) – the National Human Rights Association. These are primarily busy with responding to complaints from the population, which are extremely varied. Indeed, they include both, complaints really concerning human rights, and complaints of socio-economic nature, criticism of administrative and judicial bodies.

On the other hand, the real situation with human rights is quite different, because of the nature of the power – an absolutist monarchy governed by Sharia Laws in its internal affairs. We must frankly admit that Sharia is a concept that is profoundly different from the Western system of law. It is based on the Koran and Sunnahs (hadiths, i.e., canonized stories about the life of the Prophet). As encyclopedias rightly describe it, Sharia (in Arabic – the right way, way of action) is a set of legal, canonical and traditional, ethical and religious norms of Islam, covering a significant part of a Muslim’s life and proclaimed as “eternal and immutable” Divine direction.

One special feature of the KSA is that the Kingdom has its own Sharia – Hanabilah, which is one of the four major Madhhabs (directions) of Sunni Sharia. It is characterized by the strictest compliance with the standards of the Old Testament “pure” Islam. This Islam is also called Salafi or Wahhabi (which is essentially the same thing), after the Saudi theologian of the eighteenth century Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, who developed the concept of another, more ancient Ulema Ibn Taymiyyah, who lived in the 13th century. Therefore, the KSA implements such norms of Islamic law as decapitation (from 70 to 120 executions annually), punishment of the convicted with sticks, whips, etc. Divorce is based on repeating the word “Talaq” three times, whereby the status of divorced women is often unclear, since there are no documents. In case of a divorce, children are taken by the father. A man may have several wives and so on – in strict accordance with the third Sura of the Koran. The Salafis do not recognize the worship of saints and tombs, considering this as idolatry.

The things that are folklore to many countries, are the norm in Saudi Arabia. Even an attempt to replace decapitation (due to the shortage of executioners) by shooting failed this year – the innovation did not strike root.

This difference with the generally accepted rules of law in the world causes certain difficulties. These began increasing in the last 8-10 years due to the current reform efforts of King Abdullah, who, without canceling the Sharia, began to conduct large-scale reforms in the country, designed to modernize it profoundly. About 140-150 thousand students went abroad, universities for women were established in the kingdom, they were even allowed to vote in the only elections held in the country – municipal ones (September 2011), in early 2013, they were allowed to enter the Shura Council (something like parliament), and to practice law, even to work in some areas (mainly as cashiers, saleswomen in lingerie departments, and at the reception desks in hotels and hospitals).

However, many problems remain “suspended”, and the “Arab Spring” apparently influenced the attitudes of the authorities and, primarily, of local clergy, that started resisting changes resolutely. Reformers’ attempts even to legislate permission for women to drive a car ran into a strong resistance from clerics this autumn. They believe that the best antidote against the instability that has seized the region is “strengthening of the foundations”, and the monarch who is more than ninety years old, cannot disregard them.

Moreover, he is forced to make increasingly greater concessions to Ulemas, to proclaim “the sovereignty of the Islamic Ummah” and to warn against “interference into its internal affairs”, and even to call for building relations with the external (non-Muslim) world based not on the international law, but on the principle of “an eye for an eye”, or, as it is gently translated by politically correct interpreters, on the principle of “reciprocity”. This was shown in the King’s speech to pilgrims on October 16. The higher clergy goes even further, in fact calling for the creation of a military and political alliance of Islamic states. The embodiment of this direction was the discussion of establishing such a union within the CCASG (Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf) at its summit on December 10 this year in Kuwait, based on the initiative of King Abdullah in December (2011).

Obviously, the “Arab Revolutions” are leading the KSA closer and closer to a historical crossroads, when it will have to choose – either profound political changes that involve reformatting of the political system, including in the area of human rights, or the preservation of the absolute monarchy at the stage of homeostasis, by forming a belt of similar countries around it, which is becoming an increasingly costly task, both in terms of financial investments, including in the socio-economic sphere, and in terms of investments in ensuring country’s image in the international arena. A powerful flow of petrodollars allows it to follow the second path at present. However, how long will this last? I think we will soon find out.

Maxim Egorov, political observer of the Middle East, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.