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Why does Saudi Arabia Continue to Escape Punishment for Human Rights Violations?

When we think of Saudi Arabia, perhaps the first few thoughts that come to mind are its wealth, influence as a huge oil exporter, its totalitarian absolute monarchy and that its legal system is based on Sharia law. By extension, one of its defining characteristics is, to be frank, the oppression of women and lack of regard for human rights. Despite the seeming progress being made since Prince Mohammed bin Salman assumed office as the country’s deputy prime minister in June 2017, leading to reforms including regulations restricting the powers of the religious police and the removal of the ban on female drivers; Saudi Arabia continues to demonstrate values that do not align with what Western civilisations consider acceptable.


There are a number of prominent, recent violations of human rights that Saudi Arabia have committed. Firstly, they have detained a number of human rights defenders and critics of Saudi government, with some, following unfair trials, sentenced to lengthy prison terms. Amnesty International reports that ‘torture and other ill-treatment of detainees remain[s] common’.[1]

Notable women’s rights activist have also been unfairly detained, for instance Maryam al-Otaibi, who participated in the campaign to bring an end to the system of male guardianship (which is still in force), was incarcerated for fleeing an abusive home environment against her father’s wishes.[2] Activist Loujain al-Hathloul, defied the driving ban whilst it was still in place as a form of protest.[3] She was ‘questioned’ for her actions, which included being tortured, waterboarded, beaten, given electric shocks, sexually harassed and threatened with rape and murder.[4] According to families of other imprisoned women, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, this treatment is commonplace, with some women also whipped and flogged.[5] According to a poll in June 2018 by Thomson Reuters Foundation, SA is the 5th most dangerous country in the world for women due to ‘violence, discrimination and cultural traditions’.[6]

Execution is used freely, with over 650 people executed since SA’s Universal Periodic Review in 2013, with more than 200 of them for nonviolent drug crimes.[7] This is despite the fact that, the Arab Charter of Human Rights, which has been ratified by SA, states that the death penalty should be reserved for only the ‘most serious crimes’ in exceptional circumstances. They also continue to ‘deny access to independent human rights organisations like Amnesty International, and they have been known to take punitive action, including through the courts, against activists and family members of victims who contact Amnesty’.[8]

Saudi Arabia has also come under vehement criticism for its involvement in the Yemen crisis, committing serious violations of international law.[9] They have taken part in aerial bombardments, resulting in the deaths of tens of thousands of civilians.[10]

Perhaps most notably in recent news is the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi who was killed, dismembered and his body remains unfound. According to many reports, the killing ‘could not have taken place without the express approval of the crown prince’,[11] yet SA continue to deny responsibility for the murder. These acts demonstrate, according to Miller and Sokolsky, that whilst ‘MbS may be committed to serious reform…it will be directed from the top down by a ruthless and inexperienced leader who brooks no criticism or dissent.[12]

How they escape punishment

Saudi Arabia is an ally of the US, with interests in oil and energy reserves, investments and arms purchases, Trump is reluctant to criticise SA’s action; ‘for decades, the US has quietly looked away from Saudi Arabia’s human rights abuses for material gain’.[13] Yet, evidently the US would be in the best position to make clear to MbS that these violations are unacceptable. However, Trump fears that by loosening ties with SA and to publicly denigrate their behaviour could have a huge negative impact upon oil prices. He is also strongly influenced by the ‘half a million American jobs’ that deals in arms creates and the $350 billion these deals are apparently set to generate over a decade. Further, he justifies his position by arguing that if these contracts are cancelled, ‘Russia and China would be the enormous beneficiaries’.[14] As a result, in his statement, Trump declared that ‘The United States intends to remain a steadfast partner of Saudi Arabia to ensure the interests of our country, Israel and all other partners in the region’.[15]

This has been, rightly, met with much criticism. As Miller and Sokolsky opine, ‘The United States has a strong stake in supporting a wise, prudent and reform-minded leader; it most certainly doesn’t have an interest in being used and abused by a reckless authoritarian who seems bent on repressing his own citizens, killing his opponents, destabilizing the region and undermining American interests and values in the process’.[16]

Indeed, there have been strong calls by senators to withdraw US military aid for Saudi Arabia’s involvement in Yemen in part to show strong condemnation of Khashoggi’s murder, as Representative Ro Khanna, Democrat of California stated, ‘This is their opportunity to send a message to the Saudis that their behavior on Khashoggi and their flagrant disregard of human rights is not consistent with the American way of doing business and not in line with American values’.[17] Yet ‘The White House has suggested that it could be an unconstitutional encroachment on Mr. Trump’s powers as commander in chief for Congress to override his judgment and try to terminate the mission’.[18] Congress also requested a report determining who killed Khashoggi, to which the Trump administration has refused to respond.[19]

According to Paul Salem, president of the Middle East Institute, ‘I think the US is moving away from actually protecting human rights around the world. It’s partly because the US is no longer the dominant global power that can just order people around’.[20] Apparently Trump views the situation as ‘the needs of the nation, in effect, outweigh the consequences of a crime against one man, however horrible’.[21]

What next?

Political leaders must take a stance and condemn Saudi Arabia’s human rights violations. Trump needs to cut ties with Saudi Arabia but if he won’t, Congress can reject the arms sales by passing law prohibiting it as well as holding hearings, and, whilst they won’t have prosecution powers, they can ‘highlight things the Saudis don’t want highlighted’.[22] Saudi Arabia needs US security support and has much to lose from a discontinuity in relations.[23] Trump is in the best position to demonstrate that the international community will not stand for these violations and should rethink his ‘America First’ policy.

Rachel Towers

Human Rights Section Feature Writer

6th April 2019


[1] ‘Saudi Arabia 2017/2018’ (Amnesty International) <> accessed 11 February 2019

[2] ibid

[3] Nicholas Kristof, ‘She Wanted to Drive, So Saudi Arabia’s Ruler Imprisoned and Tortured Her’ (The New York Times, 26 January 2019) <> accessed 11 February 2019

[4] ibid

[5] ibid

[6] ‘The truth about Saudi Arabia’s human rights record’ (The Week, 5 November 2018) <> accessed 11 February 2019

[7] ‘Saudi Arabia: Rights Abuses Under Scrutiny’ (Human Rights Watch, 15 November 2018) <> accessed 11 February 2019

[8] Shehab Khan, ’10 examples of human rights abuses by Saudi Arabia’ (Independent, 3 January 2019) <> accessed 11 February 2019

[9] ‘Saudi Arabia 2017/2018’ (Amnesty International) (n 1)

[10] Anthony Zurcher, ‘Trump Saudi statement: What the president’s words reveal’ (BBC, 20 November 2018) <> accessed 16 February 2019

[11] Richard Sokolsky and Aaron David Miller, ‘The US-Saudi Relationship Is Out of Control’ (Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 12 October 2018) < > accessed 16 February 2019

[12] ibid

[13] Alex Ward, ‘Why the US won’t break up with Saudi Arabia over Jamal Khashoggi’s murder’ (Vox, 20 November 2018) <> accessed 16 February 2019

[14] ‘Trump defends Saudi Arabia ties despite Khashoggi murder’ (BBC, 20 November 2018) <> accessed 16 February 2019

[15] ibid

[16] Aaron David Miller and Richard Sokolsky, ‘The U.S.-Saudi relationship is worth preserving – but not under the current terms’ (The Washington Post, 25 October 2018) <> accessed 16 February 2019

[17] Catie Edmondson and Charlie Savage, ‘House Votes to Halt Aid for Saudi Arabia’s War in Yemen’ (The New York Times, 13 February 2019) <> accessed 16 February 2019

[18] ibid

[19] ‘Jamal Khashoggi murder: Trump refuses Congress demand for report’ (BBC, 9 February 2019) <> accessed 16 February 2019

[20] Alex Ward, ‘Why the US won’t break up with Saudi Arabia over Jamal Khashoggi’s murder’ (n 13)

[21] Anthony Zurcher, ‘Trump Saudi statement: What the president’s words reveal’ (n 10)

[22] Amber Phillips, ‘What can Congress do to punish Saudi Arabia if Trump won’t? (The Washington Post, 17 October 2018) <> accessed 16 February 2019

[23] Editorial Board, ‘Who needs Saudi Arabia? (The Washington Post, 15 October 2018) <> accessed 16 February 2019

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 above.

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