Category Archives: Blog

Elevation of Mohammed bin Salman may not Affect State of Saudi Human Rights

With the elevation of 31-year-old Mohammed bin Salman to the position of Crown Prince – the youngest Crown Prince Saudi Arabia has ever had – there has come a sense of optimism about the future of the kingdom’s socio-economic state.

There is hope among activists and the general public that younger leadership will bring about a wave of modernization in policy and result in a reformed society that generates stable jobs and upholds citizens’ human rights. Groups such as Human Rights Watch (HRW) have also communicated high hopes for Mohammed bin Salman, releasing a statement that called on him to publicly commit to rights reform.

But while there is a sense of optimism about the direction of the country after bin Salman’s elevation to Crown Prince, there remains an air of skepticism about his promotion. Even though he has demonstrated ambition on the economic front, he has not taken steps to address calls for human rights reforms essential to bringing the country in line with international standards. Thus far, he has failed to address women’s rights, for example, and has not proposed a comprehensive strategy to phase out patriarchal institutions such as the male guardianship system or driving ban. In addition, although the Saudi Vision 2030 initiative includes a mention of increasing women in the labor force from 22 to 30 percent, the plan, which is led by bin Salman, demonstrates little consideration of the practical barriers such a reform would face, particularly concerning conservative sentiment within broad swathes of the population.

Furthermore, bin Salman’s role in Saudi Arabia’s involvement in the conflict in Yemen, and the rights abuses committed by the kingdom and its coalition allies, raises concerns about future human rights reforms. In his previous position as defense minister, bin Salman played a significant role in Saudi’s military involvement in Yemen. As the official responsible for Saudi Arabia’s engagement, he has overseen numerous airstrikes on residential targets as well as a blockade that has brought much of Yemen to the brink of famine.

Less than a month into bin Salman’s job as Crown Prince, Saudi Arabia has executed more than ten prisoners, including at least four who were sentenced to death for participating in peaceful protests. Now, there are indications that the kingdom may execute 14 more individuals at any moment, including one young man arrested for participating in a peaceful protest when he was a minor. In the first half of 2017 alone, the Saudi Arabian government has executed fifty-six individuals. This rise in executions has been condemned by rights groups and a recent Amnesty International statement accused the Saudi government of using the death penalty as “a political weapon to silence dissent.”

In addition, prominent Saudi rights activists, including blogger Raif Badawi and women’s rights advocate Maryam al-Otaibi are still in prison for peacefully exercising their right to freedom of speech. Bin Salman has yet to take a stance on releasing these prisoners of conscience or reforming law enforcement to ensure due process and adequate treatment of detainees.

While there is optimism for bin Salman’s economic policies, he has thus far had little impact on Saudi Arabia’s human rights policy. He has yet to take a positive stance on women’s rights, has played a large role in the humanitarian crisis in Yemen, and at least tacitly supports the criminalization of peaceful dissent and the execution of dissidents and peaceful protesters. In his newfound position of authority, bin Salman has an opportunity to address these issues and he should use his power to bring Saudi Arabia’s human rights policies in line with international standards.

Navneet Gidda, an Advocacy Intern at ADHRB

Saudi Girls Can Attend Gym Class, but Guardianship Still Lurks

On Tuesday 11 July, the Saudi Ministry of Education (MoE) announced that schools will provide physical education classes to girls for the first time in the kingdom’s history. This development marks a rare, if slight loosening of the restrictions placed on women in one of the world’s most restrictive societies.

The decision is part of the Saudi government’s Vision 2030 plan which seeks to diversify the Saudi economy and promote better standards of living to citizens. Allowing girls to participate in physical education classes is part of an initiative to reach one of the Vision goals: to raise the percentage of Saudis exercising at least once per week from 13 percent to 40 percent.

The MoE will begin the program at the start of the next academic year. While, it did not elaborate on what type of programs would be offered, it assured Saudis that the program would be implemented gradually and with total adherence to sharia law.

There will be several potential challenges to the program. One challenge is that Saudi universities prohibit women from studying to become physical education teachers. As most schools are segregated by gender, including faculty, this would be problematic because male PE teachers could not instruct girls.  Most girls’ schools lack athletic facilities.

Another challenge is that the perception of women in sports within Saudi Arabia is generally negative. Raha Moharrak, the Saudi woman who climbed Mt. Everest, notes that many Saudis view sports for women as going against a woman’s “nature” and a diversion from more important “female” responsibilities. She also remarked that the “immodesty” of women’s athletic attire has proved problematic in the ultraconservative kingdom. Among some of the concerns is the fear that participating in sports makes women gain too many muscles, causing them to appear more masculine.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) has documented the negative impacts of preventing Saudi women equal access to physical education and participation in sports in a 2012 report. Since then, the Saudi government has taken some small steps towards gender equality in sports. In 2016, for example, Saudi Arabia sent four female athletes to the Rio Olympics, and the Saudi General Authority for Sports created a new female department with Princess Reema al Saud serving as the head. However, these small advances do not compensate for the larger societal marginalization of women in Saudi Arabia.

The inequality between Saudi men and women in sports is reflected in broader societal issues of gender discrimination. Saudi Arabia employs a guardianship system which binds a woman to their male “guardian.” The woman’s father is her first guardian, but guardianship transfers to the woman’s husband when she marries.

The guardianship system essentially reduces women’s status to that of legal minors. Barring approval from their male guardian, women cannot travel, rent a house, access medical services, enter the job market, or attend institutes of higher education. Therefore, the guardianship system greatly restricts women’s independence and mobility, crippling their ability to enjoy their human rights to the fullest extent.

Saudi Arabia is also the only country in the world where women are prohibited from driving. This forces women to hire drivers, many of whom are foreign, that often sexually harass and blackmail them. Women, such as activist Manal al-Sharif, have spoken out about this issue and some have even driven in protest, but authorities often arbitrarily detain these women and abuse them while in detention, including detaining them in cramped and filthy quarters and subjecting them to vaginal searches.

While small steps like the MoE’s program to bring physical education to girls in school are encouraging, this move does not address the systemic core of gender inequality: the Saudi guardianship system. This program may help improve girls’ health and teach them the value of a well-balanced life, but it will not spare them from the male guardianship system. The Saudi government must repeal the guardianship system in order to promote gender equality within the kingdom and continue to take steps ensuring development of opportunities for girls and women.

Alex DiBell in an Advocacy Intern at ADHRB.

Photo courtesy of The Independent.

UAE Implicated in Torture at Yemeni Black Sites

In late June, The Associated Press (AP) and Human Rights Watch (HRW) revealed that the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has established a web 18 “black site” prisons in Yemen. Hidden in military bases, air and seaports, and private villas, these secret detention facilities have been host to a variety of human rights abuses, such as arbitrary detention and torture.

According to HRW, Emirati forces and local Yemeni groups backed by the UAE have forcibly disappeared dozens of individuals to these secret detention facilities on suspicions of affiliation with extremist groups such as Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and Yemen’s branch of the Islamic State (IS-Y).

HRW documented 49 cases of arbitrary detention and/or forced disappearance over the past year in the Yemeni governorates of Aden and Hadramawt, including four children. At least 39 of these cases were detained by UAE-backed personnel. The prisoners are mostly held incommunicado.

The AP and HRW reports indicate that interrogators at these black sites regularly subject detainees to torture. Six former inmates corroborated that dozens of the detainees were crammed into a three-by-ten shipping container, left blindfolded, and bound by their hands and feet for months at a time. Detainees feared one particular interrogator, known only as “the Doctor, for his especially brutal techniques, such as hanging weights from detainees’ genitals and pulling on them. The detainees believe that “the Doctor” was Emirati. At the detention center located in the Riyan airport, security personnel subjected another detainee to a fake execution, in which he was told while blindfolded that they had strapped an explosive suicide belt to him, and then set off a sound grenade nearby.

The most infamous method of torture employed in these detention centers is called “the grill.” Interrogators strap detainees horizontally to a metal pole and spin them like a roast in a circle of fire. They spun one prisoner so fast that he vomited blood.

All forms of torture, including the methods listed above, are prohibited under the United Nations Convention against Torture (CAT), to which the UAE acceded to in July 2012.

Nevertheless, the Emirati government has a record of torturing domestic prisoners as well as individuals detained in Yemen. For example, in August 2015, Emirati authorities arbitrarily detained and forcefully disappeared prominent academic and economist, Dr. Nasser bin Ghaith. They reportedly beat bin Ghaith and deprived him of sleep for a week.

In addition to documenting UAE officials committing the acts of torture, the AP and HRW reports also raise concern about the potential involvement of the United States (US). Officials from the Department of Defense (DOD) have admitted that US personnel have interrogated detainees in Yemen as part of counterterror operations, but they deny all allegations of being complicit in torture. In fact, the DOD denied that US personnel even knew about human rights violations occurring in the UAE-linked detention centers. One Yemeni employee at the Riyan airport reiterated that when American personnel were present, no abuses occurred against prisoners.

However, Cori Crider, a lawyer and member of human rights organization, Reprieve, refuted these claims in an article published on 25 June 2017 in The Atlantic. Crider visited one of the UAE-linked detention centers in Yemen in 2010 at the request of an American detainee’s family. Crider was reportedly only permitted to visit the site, called “Political Security,” and see the detainee due to his status as an American citizen. He told her that US personnel had verbally abused him, claiming that they promised him that he would be raped in a Yemeni jail and that his wife and daughter would face a similar fate. When the citizen asked two American interrogators about his constitutional rights, one of them responded by saying, “there is no Constitution here, son.”

US politicians have also voiced concern that American personnel have contributed to human rights violations in these Yemeni detention centers. On the same day that the AP report was released, US senators John McCain and Jack Reed, both veterans, wrote a letter to Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis asking for a review of the allegations and procedures of US personnel serving in counterterror operations in Yemen. They wrote, “Even the suggestion that the United States tolerates torture by our foreign partners compromises our national security mission by undermining the moral principle that distinguishes us from our enemies— our belief that all people possess basic human rights.” The United States is a signatory to the CAT, meaning that if the allegations were true, the US would be acting in violation of the international treaty.

Following the reports, victims of torture in UAE stepped forward to share their experiences, such as David Haigh. Emirati police detained Haigh on two separate occasions, torturing him and denying him access to healthcare and legal assistance. Activists in Yemen have also orchestrated a Twitter campaign calling on individuals to expose the torture by providing further evidence. In the wake of the reports, local authorities in Hadramawt allegedly released 21 people accused of being members of Al Qaeda, claiming that, “[those released] are not dangerou elements.”

The human rights violations occurring in Yemen must be brought to an end. It is crucial that UAE-backed forces immediately halt the practices of arbitrary detention and forced disappearance. The UAE-run black site prisons must be shut down immediately and all illegally held prisoners released and adequately compensated.

Additionally, the US must terminate any operation with foreign security forces involved in the use of torture and consider suspending all security assistance to countries implicated in such human rights abuses.

Alex DiBell is an Advocacy Intern with ADHRB.

Saudi Arabia’s Evolving Oil Politics

In a 27 June 2017 article, Bloomberg described a worrying decrease in investors in Saudi Arabia’s industries. The article argues that falling oil prices coupled with ongoing and potential regional conflicts call for an updated economic model to offset the losses of the Gulf state members of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), Saudi Arabia in particular. This updated model, coupled with societal reform and greater protection for worker and women’s rights, is much needed for the kingdom to be able to successfully follow through with its ambitious Vision 2030 project.

In 2016, oil served as a crucial source of Saudi Arabia’s revenue, comprising of a remarkable 62 percent of their revenue with an anticipated to increase to 69 percent in 2017. However, because oil prices have dropped to $40 – 50 (USD) per barrel and OPEC is planning production cuts, the Kingdom’s reduced revenue will not be the only aspect to suffer. Saudi Arabia’s petroleum industry cannot provide the number of jobs necessary to advance urgent Vision 2030 initiatives as planned, making this increase optimistic at best. As such, they will need to shift their efforts to a more fiscally sustainable income and wean the country off of oil profits.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s Vision 2030 aims to do just that: transform the Saudi economy through diversifying industries – specifically within the private sector – while reducing the economy’s dependence on oil. In this way, Saudi Arabia seeks to increase non-oil revenue to 50 percent of its total income by 2020. This will only be possible by expanding their role in the global energy industry through transforming Saudi Aramco internationally and creating a sovereign wealth fund through an unprecedented initial public offering (IPO) of 5 percent in shares of the company. Saudi officials estimate Aramco is valued at $2 trillion, selling 5 percent of which would raise $100 billion for the Saudi economy.

Amidst plans to radically transform its economy due to broad concerns about revenue sustainability, Saudi Arabia purchases billions of dollars of weapons on the international market. According to the World Bank, Saudi Arabia spent 13.5 percent of their GDP, which equates to approximately $87 billion, on defense in 2015. Paradoxically, at the very moment the kingdom is concerned about its finances, it devotes over 10 percent of its revenue to financing weapons purchases to be used in the controversial war in Yemen, an initiative which is headed by the Crown Prince.  Saudi Arabia has launched airstrikes which have hit numerous civilian targets, including noncombatants and hospitals, worsening the health and security of the country.

Despite humanitarian abuses in Yemen’s civil war, President Trump arranged a $100 billion arms deal to the Kingdom, under the blanket statement of increased ‘security.’ President Trump also chose to lift the suspension on selling precision-guided munitions – which the Obama Administration previously blocked – reinforcing the Saudi bombing campaign in Yemen and signaling to the Saudis that their actions are acceptable.

The paradox of spending one-tenth of GDP on arms in the midst of economic transformation notwithstanding, Saudi Arabia also faces the challenge of finding willing Saudis to engage with economic and labor force reforms. Officials from Lockheed Martin, a defense contractor involved in the deal, stated the deal “will directly contribute to Vision 2030 by opening the door for thousands of highly skilled jobs in new economic sectors.” However, since Saudis traditionally lack the skills and willingness to perform manual labor, the kingdom would have to rely on an increased dependence on foreign labor prior to industrial and infrastructural growth in the new sectors. Continuing to utilize foreign workers will consume most of the financial resources from proposed investments without guaranteeing increased revenue. In addition, this raises human rights concerns for foreign and domestic workers who have been subjected to physical or sexual abuse, withheld wages, and poor working conditions by their employers in the past.

Migrant workers have very few rights and protections within the Kingdom, which often fails to sufficiently investigate abuses against them. Many workers are illegally recruited to work in Saudi Arabia and forced into servitude. Female workers, due to their isolated position in private residences, are highly vulnerable to trafficking and sexual abuse at the hands of their employers. Further, Saudi Arabia has failed to ratify the International Labor Organization’s Domestic Labor Convention and therefore failed to protect not only their industries, but those who travel to the Kingdom hoping for a better life.

Politically, there is an intersection between security and economic policy. Researchers have claimed that in order for Vision 2030 to succeed, it must change Saudi society. Current positions in the private sector are unattractive to Saudis, and subsidy cuts and unemployment are constant reminders of grievances which fueled the Arab Spring revolts in 2011. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) is concerned about the effectiveness of Vision 2030, given its far-reaching goals for economic growth with little emphasis on the evolution of Saudi society and politics. However, necessary revisions within the private sector are increasingly more difficult as low oil prices starve a country of capital for reconstruction.

Growth is negated when the necessary resources to achieve it are depleting at a fast rate. Saudi Arabia has a brief 13 years to radically overhaul its economy – which will surely be met with opposition from entrenched interests. As such, the success of Vision 2030 appears to be bleak, given its lack of focus on political and social development, reliance on several years’ worth of essential non-oil revenue to foster the expansions within a time constraint, unwillingness to promote health and stability in the region, and fiscal irresponsibility.

Sydney Scribner is an Advocacy Intern at ADHRB.

[Featured Image by Nicholas Kamm / AFP]

Bahrain “Reopens” Pearl Monument but Obscures its Legacy

Photo courtesy: https://bahrain.viewbook.com/

On 14 February 2011, thousands of Bahraini citizens joined together to peacefully call for democratic reforms and human rights protections. Two days later, on 16 February, the protesters occupied the Pearl Roundabout, a traffic circle in Manama that took its name from the 300-ft high pearl monument at its center. Demonstrators established an encampment and stayed overnight, even organizing speeches and political discussions. However, at 3:00 AM on 17 February, Bahraini security forces violently raided the gathering, killing and wounding protesters. By 19 February, demonstrators returned to the site and reoccupied the Roundabout until 16 March, when the security forces – bolstered by a contingent of Saudi and Emirati personnel-again attacked. This time authorities barricaded the area, preventing protesters from returning. On 18 March, the Bahraini government demolished the Pearl Roundabout, which had by then become a symbol for democracy in Bahrain and a focal point of the movement.

Six years later, on 14 June 2017, Bahraini authorities officially reopened the site of the Pearl Roundabout. Yet the importance of the symbolism was not lost on them. The center of the circle where the monument stood has been paved over as a road, and the site’s name changed to Al Farooq Junction. While the government claims that it has made “developments” to the area for economic reasons and to help the flow of traffic, this assertion neglects the historical significance of the location. Moreover, the authorities have made such claims to distract from an ongoing campaign to obscure and delegitimize the core symbols of democratic reform and the human rights movement in Bahrain.

International human rights experts have documented this worrying trend. On 11 July 2014, the UN Special Rapporteurs on cultural rights, the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, and the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and association issued a joint communication to the Bahraini government expressing great concern for the pearl monument’s destruction and calling for an end to ongoing suppressive measures. The communication specifically noted the Bahraini government’s apparent attempts to rewrite history, stating “That history teachings and memorial practices foster critical thought, analytic learning and debate, and open spaces to a variety of narratives regarding the past.”

The government did not stop at the demolition of the monument, but moved to erase all images of the roundabout and its connection to the pro-democracy movement. It pulled the 500 fils coin out of circulation because it was engraved with an image of the monument and removed postcards featuring its image from shops .Officials also removed pictures of the pearl monument from government websites. Citizens have responded by creating graffiti images of the monument, which are often quickly painted over, and by building makeshift replicas, which are often quickly destroyed.

The Bahraini government went even further when it renamed the plaza Al Farooq Junction, considered by many to be a provocative name intended to inflame sectarian divisions. Toby Matthiesen, Research Fellow in Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Cambridge, explains the rationale: “To make clear that this was a victory of the Sunnis over the Shia, the junction that was built to replace the Pearl Roundabout was called Faruq Junction in honor of caliph Umar ibn al-Khattab…who is revered by Sunnis…but Shia generally do not accept the first three caliphs as righteous successors of Muhammad and dislike Umar.”

Sheikh Khalid Bin Ahmad Al Khalifa, Bahrain’s foreign minister, even alluded that the Pearl Roundabout had been demolished due to political motivations, describing the monument as “a bad memory.”

More broadly, the government’s erasure of the roundabout and its images represents a larger refusal to engage in substantive dialogue with the opposition. The government’s destruction of the site, which was a de facto forum for political debate and free expression, is indicative of its recently intensified campaign to undermine all forums for political discourse and civil society activity. In 2017 alone, the Bahraini government restored law enforcement powers to the National Security Agency (NSA), amended its constitution to allow military courts to try civilians, and dissolved the last major opposition group. In May, security forces raided a peaceful sit-in at the home of Bahrain’s leading Shia cleric, Sheikh Isa Qassim, after demonstrators camped out there to protest his arbitrary denaturalization. It was one of the kingdom’s deadliest raids in years, leaving five dead and hundreds injured.

The Bahraini government’s destruction of the Pearl Roundabout reflects its greater campaign to suppress political dissent and eliminate spaces that promote political debate. Its “redevelopment” of the site shows the government’s willingness not only to erase the symbols of democratic reform in Bahrain, but also to undermine the historical context necessary to foster reconciliation and dialogue. The Pearl Roundabout and the democratic movement it represents, must be remembered, especially as its legacy comes increasingly under attack.

Alex DiBell is an Advocacy Intern at ADHRB