The latest reports of Saudi concessions on human rights might as well be called Operation Rebrand Saudi Arabia. Of 225 demands issued by the UN human rights council in 2013, the Saudi delegation conceded to 180.
Over the past couple of days, Saudi representatives have been on BBC’s Newsnight, CNN’s Amanpour and other outlets billing this as a landmark step in the right direction, sanctioned by no less a person than the king himself.
However, look into the fine print and problems arise. There is a great deal of language that sounds like kicking the human rights can further down the road. Lots of “in principles” and “under reviews” and “holistic approaches”.
First, however, the good news. Saudi Arabia has, “in principle”, accepted one of the most comprehensive overhauls of its human rights system in history, conceding that aspects of law enforcement and regulation of political assembly and freedom of speech should be brought in line with international standards. This is an admission that there are serious problems, a rare acknowledgement from a country so characteristically precious about its internal affairs.
But what about women’s rights? The right to drive and the male guardianship system? These are the totems of the country’s backwardness in the international community. There is some strong, encouraging language about guardianship, where Saudi proposes “phasing out” the guardianship system altogether.
But, unsurprisingly, the language on the driving ban is a bit vaguer, mainly guaranteeing “women’s rights to free travel”. I felt slightly sorry for the Saudi representative on BBC Newsnight, who had come to the interview prepared to talk about all the splendid recommendations they had accepted, only to be interrupted by Paxman repeatedly asking him if women could now drive. The representative could not come up with a simple “yes”.
It’s not surprising that these moves are being greeted with scepticism. The report comes after some terrible press for the Saudi royal family, and the king in particular. One of the king’s ex-wives has appealed to western media organisations to intercede in the case of her three daughters, allegedly virtually imprisoned in the royal compound by their father in Saudi Arabia.
There is also a disconnect between legislation and culture which slightly confounds the Saudi government even if it does follow through. Recently, the government went so far as to say that it would fine shops selling lingerie and other women’s items that did not employ Saudi women. However the number of prospective employees that came forward was so low that many business owners went bankrupt, stuck between the government’s muscular approach and Saudi culture’s reluctance.
The rebranding is of course, part of a wider national repositioning. Saudi Arabia finds itself slightly at sea. It was a country that could happily go about its business knowing that it was both an indispensable ally to the west in the Arab world, and a regional economic and religious powerhouse, enjoying an avuncular relationship with the rest of the Arab world’s dictators. But the volatility of the Arab Spring, Qatar’s rise as a capricious Persian Gulf neighbor that just won’t play ball, and America’s philosophical withdrawal from what it now sees as a confusing and unpredictable Arab world, have left Saudi Arabian policymakers scrambling to carve out a new place for the country.
On the whole, it appears that the dispensations the country has made most enthusiastically are minor ones, such as allowing NGOs to operate and ratifying covenants on economical, social and cultural rights. Bigger concessions, such as lifting the ban on driving and categorically setting a minimum age of consent for marriage, are absent. While even small steps forward count (and perhaps the country is correct in tackling the more sensitive cultural and religious issues in phases), tackling these taboos would reap the most positive goodwill for Saudi Arabia, and show that it really does mean business
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