Saudi Arabia: When Impunity becomes a Policy of the Kingdom

In June 2017, Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) was appointed as the new heir to the throne of Saudi Arabia. Before his appointment, little was known about MbS on the international stage. Many prominent Americans with Saudi ties were eager to frame him as a progressive modernising reformer. This could be said for certain surface-level reforms, but beneath the façade MbS has proven to be a ruthless autocrat – a continuation of the Al Saud regime. This dispatch aims to document the countless reports of human rights violations and the culture of impunity enjoyed by the perpetrators of such atrocities.

MbS started his reign by imprisoning many high-ranking members of his own family. The Guardian reported that 30 senior royal family members were imprisoned at the Ritz Carlton hotel in Riyadh. This was an unprecedented move in Saudi Arabian history, and demonstrated the potential ruthlessness of MbS. According to The Guardian, Saudi Arabia follows a deeply tribal and patriarchal framework, rooted upon a consensual alliance between the different branches of the ruling family who all descended from the same founding ruler Abdulaziz al-Saud. In one fell swoop, the young prince was able to consolidate his power with minimal consequences to the Al Saud ruling family alliances.

Another early indication of MbS’ tyrannical capacity was seen in the case of Alwaleed bin Talal, a Saudi Royal family member with old ties and investments in western companies. A rich and powerful member of the ruling class, Alwaleed was imprisoned on the orders of MbS until he gave into his demands. This gave MbS the first sign that he could get away with domineering manipulation tactics on his path to consolidate his power.

On October 2, 2018, Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi journalist and former editor-in-chief for the Saudi newspaper Al Watan, went missing after entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in order to obtain documents certifying he had divorced his ex-wife so he could remarry. Khashoggi had previously been a media advisor to Prince Turki al-Faisal, a former head of Saudi intelligence, who was also formerly ambassador to the United States (US) and the United Kingdom (UK). Immediately following his disappearance, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia denied having any knowledge of Khashoggi’s whereabouts. However, Turkish officials stated that they had evidence Khashoggi had been assassinated in the consulate on the orders of Saudi leadership. Turkey alleged the attack was conducted by a 15-member hit team, some of whom worked in Saudi military, security, or intelligence services or had ties to the ruling family.

In the aftermath of Khashoggi’s death, Saudi Arabia arrested 21 individuals and charged 11. Saudi Arabia is seeking the death penalty for five of the 11 for their direct involvement in ordering and executing his killing. However, the international community believes that Saudi Arabia’s response is not sufficient, and all those responsible have not been properly held accountable. Istanbul’s chief prosecutor has called for the arrests of Ahmed al-Asiri and Saud al-Qahtani on the suspicion that the two had a direct role in the planning of the murder, yet Saudi Arabia has not taken formal action against the two high-level officials. Additionally, the involvement of officials with such deep ties to MbS raises questions of the Crown Prince’s responsibility in the killing of Jamal Khashoggi.

An international outcry followed the disappearance. The Canadian government commented that “it was reviewing existing arms sales and would not approve new arms exports to the kingdom in the interim”. Yet, little has changed, and in April 2020, the Canadian government stated that it would lift its moratorium on the issuing of new arms-export permits. This decision was because it had secured “significant improvements” on a contract worth $10bn to sell light armored vehicles from a Canadian subsidiary called General Dynamics. This is just another example of a Western country willing to use Saudi Arabia’s human rights violations as a bargaining tool rather than looking to effectively punish the violations.

Moreover, the Saudi regime has been actively taking part in the war in Yemen, using Canadian weapons as well as arms sold to them by the UK and the US. ADHRB has previously reported on the human rights violations in Yemen caused by Saudi Arabia, stating that “a coalition of Gulf states led by Saudi Arabia launched airstrikes, along with a campaign of economic separation, against Houthi-Saleh forces and targets in Yemen.” These airstrikes have negatively impacted civilians in many cases resulting with many dying at the hand of Western armaments of the Saudi-led coalition.

Saudi Arabia follows the Salafai Wahhabi strand of Sunni Islam, a socially Conservative and patriarchal ideology. Under the rule of MbS, which in the beginning showed promise of change, women’s rights have been consistently negated and persecuted. ADHRB reported on the mistreatment of women’s rights activists in 2018, with women being arrested and charged for calling for an end to the male guardianship system, as well as contacting international organizations, foreign media, and other activists. Amnesty International reported that “several Saudi human rights activists, including a number of women, had reportedly faced sexual harassment, torture and other forms of ill-treatment during interrogation since being arbitrarily arrested in May 2018”. ADHRB, the International Service for Human Rights, the Gulf Center for Human Rights, and Women’s March Global have all advocated to MbS’ regime for the immediate and unconditional release of Saudi human rights defenders who have been detained solely for their support and activism for women’s rights. In terms of punitive actions taken by western countries, the calls have mostly fallen on deaf ears. There has been little condemnation by countries in the West, as critiquing the Saudi government could impact on future business for the country therefore allowing the regime to get away with the murder of journalists and gross human rights violations.

On April 24, 2020, Saudi Arabia’s oldest human rights defender Abdullah al-Hamid died. Due to his prominent role, Al-Hamid had been held in prison for eleven years. According to the Middle East Eye, “Hamid tried to break the entrenched dividing lines between ideological groups that had in the past rejected each other – Islamists and liberals, for example. He also rejected the sectarian divide between Sunnis and Shia, and endeavored to defend all prisoners of conscience, in addition to immigrants in Saudi Arabia”. Al-Hamid had to pay for his activism and he was purposely kept in degrading and inhumane conditions. On April 9, he suffered a stroke and fell into a coma in the intensive care unit in a Riyadh hospital. Prisoners of Conscience, a social media account that highlights Saudi political prisoners, described his death as a consequence of “intentional health neglect”. Again, Western governments did little about his mistreatment, which highlights the regime’s ability to do as they please.

On October 24, 2017, MbS unveiled the new city of NEOM in the northwestern region of Saudi Arabia. Costing $500 bn, this modern city is supposed to become the crown jewel of the young prince’s progressive economic reforms. Bloomberg reported that the city would promise “a lifestyle not available in today’s Saudi Arabia”. However, as recently as April 2020, the cracks have begun to show. The North West of Saudi Arabia is home to tribal cities, with inhabitants that have lived there for generations. The Saudi Arabian government has chosen to push these people out, in exchange for the vast investments that NEOM promises to bring. The Middle East Monitor reported the case of Abdul Rahim Al-Hwaiti of the Al-Hwaitat tribe in the North-Western town of Al-Khuraybah. Al-Hwaiti posted a video online, in which he “criticized the project” and showed various cases of where his neighbors were removed by force, after they rejected financial compensations. He further denounced that “people are being wiped out from their homes and people do not agree with what is happening at all. But the way in which the state has dealt with things can only be described as terrorism… state terrorism”. Sadly, Abdul Rahim was killed in an altercation with the Saudi Security forces, which he predicted when he said, “I would not be surprised if they come and kill me in my home now like they do in Egypt, throw weapons in your home and call you a terrorist… this is my home, and I’ll protect it”.

This culture of impunity of the Saudi regime towards the international community is best demonstrated by the NEOM project. What can best be described as a planned smart city, the project is set to attract billions of dollars of investment from companies around the world. In fact NEOM’s Chief Executive even highlighted that the project was very attractive for foreign investment. This includes companies from western countries that purport to value humanitarianism and adherence to human rights norms. Until the international community publicly condemns Saudi Arabia and stops its private companies from investing in the country, MbS and his regime will continue with business as usual whilst sleeping in its uncountable human rights violations under the rug.

In conclusion, this report has shown that MbS is not the progressive liberal reformist he claims to be. Journalists, women’s rights defenders, foreign civilians, royal family members and Saudi’s own citizenry have all experienced the consequences of his despotic rule. Rather than standing against MbS, Western governments have opted to continue to invest in the regime instead of condemning its practices. Until Saudi Arabia is denounced on the international stage and it is no longer seen as a potential investment opportunity, the country will continue in its gross violation of human rights.