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Soft Power and Silence: The Relationship Between Public Image and Human Rights in Saudi Arabia

Disclaimer: The views expressed are that of the individual author. All rights are reserved to the original authors of the materials consulted, which are identified in the footnotes below.


They have to realize that justice will be made one day. But people have to speak about it and not remain silent’[1]


Lina al-Hathloul



On Saturday 7th December 2019, the eyes of the world turned on Saudi Arabia, as Anthony Joshua fought Andy Ruiz Jr. for the heavyweight championship of the world. Embossed in gold on the centre of the ring was the logo of the Sovereign Investment Fund of Saudi Arabia, the sovereign wealth fund of the Arabic nation, firmly thrusting Saudi Arabia and its leadership into the global spotlight. Amongst the excitement and speculation of the fight’s build up, another very important moment for the Kingdom went relatively unreported. On 1st December 2019, Saudi Arabia assumed presidency of the G20, cementing its place as a leading global nation. Like Joshua’s “Clash on the Dunes”, the next G20 summit will take place in Saudi Arabia, despite vehement opposition from human rights organisations. These two events demonstrate exemplify how Saudi Arabia utilizes “soft power” and global publicity to distract from its abysmal human rights record and present itself as a modern, progressive nation committed to reform at the forefront of international relations. This approach is evident in two key elements of human rights protection threatened by Saudi authorities: freedom of speech and expression, and the protection of women’s rights.



















‘The Elephant in the Room’:[2] Press Restrictions and the Death of Jamal Khashoggi


Perhaps the most infamous recent human rights abuses committed in Saudi Arabia have been restrictions on the media and free speech, in particular the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. Khashoggi was arguably ‘Saudi Arabia’s best-known journalist’[3] and a constant critic of the autocracy of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. According to the New York Times, in 2017 US spy agencies intercepted a phone call in which bin Salman told a top aide that he would use ‘a bullet’ on the journalist if he did not cease his dissent.[4] On 2nd October 2018, Khashoggi entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul to collect marriage documents. According to Turkish intelligence, here he was met by a fifteen-man Saudi “hit squad”, who murdered and dismembered him within 10 minutes.[5] Initially, the Saudi Arabian authorities refused to take responsibility for the crime, arguing that Khashoggi had left via a back entrance.


Even after admitting the death of the journalist, the Saudis claimed it had been caused either accidentally or that it was a rogue operation.

These arguments ‘stretch incredulity’,[6] particularly after Turkish intelligence released recordings of Lt Col Salah al Tubaigy discussing whether the victim’s hips were too wide for their bag and Maher Abdulaziz Mutreb asking his colleagues a minute prior to the execution whether ‘the sacrificial animal’ had arrived.[7] These excuses certainly did not fool the UN Special Rapporteur Agnés Callamard, whose report on the incident in June 2019 concluded that the death was ‘the result of a planned and elaborate mission’[8] that ‘Saudi high level officials, planned, oversaw and/or endorsed’.[9]


Unfortunately, Khashoggi’s execution mirrors the domestic restriction of the media and freedom of speech in Saudi Arabia. According to Reporters Without Borders (RSF), the number of imprisoned journalists and citizen-journalists has trebled since Mohammed bin Salman took power in 2017, with more than 30 currently imprisoned for criticising the regime.[10] In reality, this number is much higher as dissidents are often charged under broadly defined “terrorism” offences for peacefully protesting against Saudi authorities. These offences also often carry severely disproportionate penalties: the human rights lawyer and campaigner Waleed Abu al-Khair is currently serving a 15-year prison sentence for holding human rights discussions in his home and criticising the imprisonment of like-minded activists.[11] There has also been an escalation in Saudi prosecutors seeking the death penalty for dissidents like the scholar Salman al-Awdah, who still awaits trial for peacefully opposing Saudi authorities.[12] It is little wonder that Saudi Arabia are ranked 172nd out of 180 countries in RSF’s Press Freedoms Index 2019,[13] a mere seven places above North Korea.


Despite this callous disregard for freedom of expression, Saudi Arabian officials have made superficial efforts to persuade the international community that they are committed to reform in this area. In the first week of December 2019, Riyadh was host to the Saudi Media Forum, bringing together Saudi and international journalists for a series of talks and workshops. Rather surprisingly, many Western liberal publications were represented at an event that journalist Jason Rezaian referred to as ‘a massive public relations campaign to re-brand one of the world’s most repressive societies as a haven for free speech’,[14] including the Guardian, Le Figaro and Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. Many local journalists have defended the event, in particular Faisal J Abbas, who described Rezaian’s criticism as ‘laughable’ and remarkably played down the murder of Khashoggi as ‘simply not in the DNA of our government’.[15] However, it is rather telling that Christophe Deloire, the executive directors of RSF, declined his invitation to attend the event after visiting Saudi Arabia and meeting with the Saudi Journalists Association.[16] The success of this use of soft power and global publicity to cover human rights abuse is mixed. Although events like the Saudi Media Forum may facilitate public ignorance of the internal repression of dissidents lead by local journalists like Abbas, the international outcry and appalling nature of the murder of Jamal Khasoggi is much more difficult to conceal. This seemingly validates the opinion of Sherif Mansour, the Middle East and North Africa Program Coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists, that


Saudi Arabia ‘are trying to tell the world that it’s time to move on from the killing of Khashoggi’ but ‘[t]here isn’t a venue big enough to contain the enormous elephant in the room’.[17]

Women’s Rights


Another area of serious human rights concern in Saudi Arabia is that of women’s rights. In some ways, recent years have seen substantial improvements in women’s rights in Saudi Arabia. On 24th June 2018, the government lifted the longstanding ban on female driving.[18] In August 2019, this was followed by the announcement of planned legislation easing the guardianship system, in line with the recommendations of the UN Committee on the Discrimination against Women in February 2018.[19] The guardianship system is a discriminatory policy under which the rights of an adult woman are almost fully dependent on the consent of her male “guardian” (potentially a husband, brother, father or son). Under the new reforms, women over the age of 21 can apply for a passport, may be issued legal documents and have more control over family affairs (thus are able to be legal guardians to children and register births, marriages and divorces).[20]


However, it is important to note that these reforms are only partial and do not mean that ‘the guardianship rules have been lifted’.[21] Under the remaining guardianship laws, adult women still require consent from their guardian to be married, cannot pass citizenship to their children and cannot grant their children consent to be married.[22]

Particularly worryingly, women still require male permission to leave a prison or domestic violence shelter,[23] meaning that often women fleeing domestic abuse can only leave a shelter if collected by their abuser.

Additionally, some of the remaining guardianship laws in practice hinder reforms: although women are now able to drive and travel, they still require a guardian to accompany them for both.[24]


The introduction of a new law on sexual harassment in June 2018 is yet another example of a positive, yet inherently flawed, advancement in women’s rights in the Kingdom. Under this legislation, any person found guilty of sexual harassment may be sentenced to two years imprisonment or a fine of up to 100,000 Saudi riyals, which may be increased in certain situations.[25] However, the legislation also provides that anyone who falsely reports a crime of sexual harassment will be subject to the same punishment.[26] This is incredibly counter-productive for a number of reasons. Firstly, this creates a clear deterrent that will prevent many victims from reporting crimes of sexual harassment. Additionally, sexual harassment and sexually motivated crimes as a whole are notoriously hard to prove and prosecute, as in many cases there is limited evidence besides the claims of each party. This therefore creates a serious risk of convicting victims of sexual harassment based on the claims of their accuser.


Much of the positivity created by these reforms has been diminished by the arrest of a series of prominent Saudi women’s rights activists on 15th May 2018. That this happened just weeks before the ban of women driving was lifted is sadly ironic, as all were prominent campaigners for the government to overturn this ban. Official statements in state-run newspapers called the women “traitors”, alleging that they had contacted ‘foreign entities with the aim of undermining the country’s social fabric’.[27] In November 2018, Amnesty International obtained three separate testimonies from imprisoned female activists alleging torture by electrocution and flogging and sexual harassment whilst arbitrarily detained.[28] Whilst the two of the most prominent campaigners, Iman al-Nafjan and Aziza al-Yousef, were released at the start of 2018,[29] perhaps the most famous, Loujain al-Hathloul, remains imprisoned.

These issues with supposedly revolutionary domestic reforms indicate both an unwillingness to effectively increase gender equality and a general indifference as to the substantive protection they grant.

Has the Saudi Arabian Approach to Soft Power Publicity Been Successful?


Overall, the application of soft power by Saudi Arabian authorities to create the illusion of a modern nation committed to reform has returned mixed results for bin Salman. The Joshua v Ruiz Jr. fight, in many ways the ‘high water mark’[30] in Saudi “sportswashing”, advertised the Kingdom to a whole new audience. In the coming months, global attention will be increased as Saudi Arabia plays host to the Dakar Rally, the Spanish Super Cup, a first international tennis event and the European Tour’s Saudi International Golf tournament. Relations with most Western nations remain very cordial. The US remain close allies with Saudi Arabia, with President Trump refusing to publically condemn Saudi rights violations[31] and selling the Saudi military over £4.6 billion of military equipment since 2015.[32] Additionally only a handful of nations, including Germany and Switzerland, have halted arms sales over alleged human rights violations.[33] Finally, their acceptance as a major, modern, international power is recognised through their presidency of the G20, despite the former UN special rapporteur Agnés Callamard referring to the prospect of a summit in Riyadh as a ‘slap in the face’ for all those who have fought and died for human rights.[34]


However, there are increasing signs of global recognition of the inauthenticity of Saudi reforms and a willingness to look past their shallow public presentation. The reporting around Anthony Joshua’s title fight was steeped in accusations about “sportswashing”. The case of Loujain al-Hathloul has gained international attention, particularly in the US, with celebrities such as Hilaria and Alec Baldwin expressing public support for all women’s right activists still imprisoned.[35] The former world number 1 golfer Rory McIlroy has declined his invitation to compete in the upcoming Saudi International Golf tournament, partially for reasons of ‘morality’, turning down a reported $2.5m fee.[36] This growing international backlash demonstrates that using soft power to draw in global attention is both positive and negative for a State with poor human rights records. Though it gives authorities a platform to project a false image to a global audience, it also provides a voice for those silenced by the state and allows international recognition for figures like Jamal Khashoggi and Loujain al-Hathloul.


Ed Olsen (Human Rights)


SOURCES

[1] Lauren Aratani ‘Family of Loujain al-Hathloul Fight to Free Imprisoned Saudi Activist’ The Guardian (14th July 2019) <https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/jul/14/loujain-al-hathloul-family-imprisoned-saudi-activist> accessed 7th December 2019


[2] Jason Rezaian ‘Saudi Arabia’s Press Freedom Masquerade’ (4th December 2019) The Washington Post <https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2019/12/04/saudi-arabias-press-freedom-masquerade/> accessed 5th December 2019


[3] David Gardner ‘A Meticulous Account of the Killing of Jamal Khashoggi’ The Financial Times (6th December 2019) <https://www.ft.com/content/38ece616-16a9-11ea-8d73-6303645ac406> accessed 6th December 2019


[4] Ibid


[5] UNCHR ‘Annex to the Report of the Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Abitrary Executions: Investigation into the Unlawful Death of Mr. Jamal Khashoggi’ (19th June 2019) UN Doc A/HRC/41/CRP.1, 20


[6] David Gardner ‘A Meticulous Account of the Killing of Jamal Khashoggi’ The Financial Times (6th December 2019) <https://www.ft.com/content/38ece616-16a9-11ea-8d73-6303645ac406> accessed 6th December 2019


[7] Jonathan Rugman The Killing in the Consulate: Investigating the Life and Death of Jamal Khashoggi (Simon & Schuster 2019)


[8] UNCHR ‘Annex to the Report of the Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Abitrary Executions: Investigation into the Unlawful Death of Mr. Jamal Khashoggi’ (19th June 2019) UN Doc A/HRC/41/CRP.1, 39


[9] Ibid, 40


[10] Stephanie Kirchgaessar ‘Saudis vexed at low ranking on press freedom index after Khashoggi murder’ The Guardian (10 July 2019) <https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/jul/10/saudi-press-freedom-index-ranking-reporters-without-borders> accessed 5th December 2019


[11] Amnesty International UK ‘Waleed Abu al-Khair, Imprisoned in Saudi Arabia for Defending Human Rights’ (12th January 2018) <https://www.amnesty.org.uk/saudi-arabia-free-human-rights-lawyer-waleed-abulkhair-abu-al-khair> accessed 7th December 2019


[12] Al Jazeera ‘Trial of Saudi Scholar Salman al-Adwah Postponed, Says Son’ (28th July 2019) <https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2019/07/trial-saudi-scholar-salman-al-awdah-postponed-son-190728115816681.html> accessed 7th December 2019


[13] Reporters Without Borders ‘2019 World Press Freedom Index’ <https://rsf.org/en/ranking_table> accessed 7th December 2019


[14] Jason Rezaian, ‘Saudi Arabia’s Press Freedom Masquerade’ The Washington Post (4th December 2019) <https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2019/12/04/saudi-arabias-press-freedom-masquerade/> accessed 5th December 2019


[15] Faisal J Abbas, ‘Don’t Over-Analyze the Saudi Media Forum’ Arab News (6th December 2019) <https://www.arabnews.com/node/1595241> accessed 6th December 2019


[16] Jason Rezaian, ‘Saudi Arabia’s Press Freedom Masquerade’ The Washington Post (4th December 2019) <https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2019/12/04/saudi-arabias-press-freedom-masquerade/> accessed 5th December 2019


[17] Jason Rezaian ‘Saudi Arabia’s Press Freedom Masquerade’ (4th December 2019) The Washington Post <https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2019/12/04/saudi-arabias-press-freedom-masquerade/> accessed 5th December 2019


[18] Human Rights Watch, ‘Saudi Arabia: Events of 2018’, <https://www.hrw.org/world-report/2019/country-chapters/saudi-arabia> accessed 5th December 2019


[19] Ibid


[20] Leila Molana-Allen ‘Saudi Arabia allows women to travel without permission as guardianship system eased’ The Telegraph (2nd August 2019) <https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2019/08/02/saudi-arabia-allows-women-travel-without-permission-guardianship/> accessed 7th December 2019


[21] Faisal J Abbas, ‘Don’t Over-Analyze the Saudi Media Forum’ Arab News (6th December 2019) <https://www.arabnews.com/node/1595241> accessed 6th December 2019


[22] Leila Molana-Allen ‘Saudi Arabia allows women to travel without permission as guardianship system eased’ The Telegraph (2nd August 2019) <https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2019/08/02/saudi-arabia-allows-women-travel-without-permission-guardianship/> accessed 7th December 2019


[23] Ibid


[24] Ibid


[25] Human Rights Watch, ‘Saudi Arabia: Events of 2018’, <https://www.hrw.org/world-report/2019/country-chapters/saudi-arabia> accessed 5th December 2019


[26] Ibid


[27] Lauren Aratani ‘Family of Loujain al-Hathloul Fight to Free Imprisoned Saudi Activist’ The Guardian (14th July 2019) <https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/jul/14/loujain-al-hathloul-family-imprisoned-saudi-activist> accessed 7th December 2019


[28] Amnesty International ‘Saudi Arabia: Reports of Torture and Sexual Harassment of Detained Activists’ (20th November 2018) <https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2018/11/saudi-arabia-reports-of-torture-and-sexual-harassment-of-detained-activists/> accessed 6th December 2019


[29] Amnesty International ‘Saudi Arabia’s “Year of Shame”: Crackdown on Critics and Rights’ Activists Continues’ (14th May 2019) <https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2019/05/saudi-arabias-year-of-shame-crackdown-on-critics-and-rights-activists-continues/> accessed 9th December 2019


[30] Dan Roan ‘Human Rights and “Sportswashing: Why Joshua v Ruiz in Saudi Arabia is so Controversial’ The BBC <https://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/boxing/50683816> accessed 4th December 2019


[31] Conrad Duncan ‘Trump Criticised for Rush to Defend Saudis after Pilot Kills Three at US Navy Base’ The Independent (9th December 2019) <https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/us-politics/trump-saudi-arabia-pensacola-navy-base-shooting-pilot-suspect-king-salman-a9237806.html> accessed 9th December 2019


[32] Human Rights Watch, ‘Saudi Arabia: Events of 2018’, <https://www.hrw.org/world-report/2019/country-chapters/saudi-arabia> accessed 5th December 2019


[33] Ibid


[34] Stephanie Kirchgaessar ‘Saudis vexed at low ranking on press freedom index after Khashoggi murder’ The Guardian (10 July 2019) <https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/jul/10/saudi-press-freedom-index-ranking-reporters-without-borders> accessed 5th December 2019


[35] Lauren Aratani ‘Family of Loujain al-Hathloul Fight to Free Imprisoned Saudi Activist’ The Guardian (14th July 2019) <https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/jul/14/loujain-al-hathloul-family-imprisoned-saudi-activist> accessed 7th December 2019


[36] BBC ‘Rory McIlroy: World Number Two Turned Down Saudi Event Offer’ (10th December 2019) <https://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/golf/50722469> accessed 10th December 2019

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