Civil liberty vs economic power: Should we sanction Saudi Arabia?


Saudi Arabia's economic and political ties with the West means the UK must walk a fine line

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Image by Alan Santos/PR


Saudi Arabia has been a key trade ally in the Middle East for the United Kingdom. However, the country’s controversial human rights record has made bilateral trade the subject of heated debates. Between 2015 and 2016, the UK government approved an arms deal worth £3.3 billion with Saudi Arabia. Michael Fallon, then-Defence Secretary, admitted that British-made cluster bombs had been dropped by Saudi Arabia in Yemen. This led to Yemeni human rights activists questioning the UK’s stance on civil rights, with MPs and charities discouraging the UK’s support of Saudi Arabia’s military actions.

Also in 2016, the son of King Salman and Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) launched a revolutionary program called Vision 2030. It aims to transform the social, economic, and government landscapes and specifically aims to create more employment opportunities for women, young people and disadvantaged groups.

This is an especially significant shift for women’s rights in Saudi Arabia: since 2018, women have been allowed to start their own businesses without the consent of a husband or male relative. This was previously not possible under the country’s guardianship system. The eased aspects of the guardianship system now allow women access to select government services and jobs without the need for prior consent. Women’s employment has risen to 20 percent, the highest the kingdom has witnessed. Still, there are imposed restrictions, including cultural and religious, that keep this proportion small.

MBS holds the second most important position in the Saudi kingdom second to King Salman. Since he was appointed in 2017, the civic space in the kingdom has shrunk and a never-before-experienced climate of fear and oppression has developed. He uses his power to order out arbitrary extrajudicial detainments and executions.  Many critics argue MBS is trying to distract from human rights abuses with the new “Saudi Dream”.

Mass evacuations that have been taking place in the city of Jeddah have also been a cause of concern for civil libertarians. The Crown Prince launched the Jeddah Central Project in December 2021, a $20 billion project to reconstruct and renovate 5.7 million square metres of land. The first demolitions started in October 2021 and are ongoing. Many residents of the affected areas have been forcibly evicted, with lower-class non-nationals being the most disadvantaged by the new renovation plans. People took onto social media platforms to voice their concerns and opinions anonymously and to raise awareness. But Saudi government-censored media channels have sugar-coated the facts, claiming they targeted “undocumented and dangerous individuals who are a threat to the country and its safety”. However, it was innocent lower-class nationals and non-nationals who were rendered homeless with no compensation offered whatsoever. Abdul Raheem al-Huwaiti was assassinated by Saudi forces after protesting against land acquisitions by the NEOM, a project being built in Tabuk.

At the same time that displacements and controversial deportations of long-term foreign residents were taking place, Saudi Arabia was overhauling its visa application process, allowing tourists easier access to its territories. This has led to a dramatic development of its tourism sector, attracting large international attention. From massive concerts, to opening the first cinema following a 35-year ban and lessening restrictions on public dress codes: Saudi Arabia is arguably on its way to becoming Dubai’s rival.

On 26 March 2022, then-UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson set out to Saudi Arabia to negotiate potential energy deals in which Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates promised additional trade, particularly advanced green energy technology, with the UK. On the same day of Boris Johnson’s visit, the charity Reprieve announced that a further three ‘alleged terrorists’ had been executed in Saudi Arabia. The executions caused an uproar as it was claimed that those executed were not terrorists but innocent Shia Muslims who took part in anti-government protests in previous years. According to the 2018 report from Amnesty International, China is the world’s top executioner, followed by Iran and Saudi Arabia.

The UK Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office has previously referred to Saudi Arabia as “a country of concern” when it comes to civil rights, yet in June 2022 a trade deal was struck between the United Kingdom and the Gulf Cooperation Council in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. The GCC includes Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain, and Oman. This agreement is expected to add £1.6 billion a year to the UK’s economy, according to the government.

Similarly, for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, this is a milestone in its Vision 2030 economic ambitions in which MBS plans out a diversified economy that is less dependent on oil. Most significantly, the trade deal will create more job prospects in Saudi Arabia, improving opportunities for disadvantaged groups, but all is contingent on whether the absolute monarch stands by his promise to support the position of those groups.

So, what foreign policies can the UK implement to promote civil liberty in the Saudi Kingdom? In 2002, the West took financial sanctions against the Zimbabwean Mugabe regime in the hopes of promoting political liberalisation. But that did not prove to be an effective tool. Indeed, historical events show that sanctioning authoritarian countries render them less democratic. Another option is imposing individual sanctions: The brutal murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul in October 2018, approved by the Saudi Prince, caused many UK MPs to seek sanctions against Saudi Arabia. In July 2020, the UK had issued “human rights” sanctions against 15 Saudi nationals over the journalist’s assassination. Whether individual sanctioning would be effective in disrupting the repressive traditions of the long-standing authoritarian Saudi empire is questionable. The UK had an interest in not jeopardising its relations with the Saudi kingdom and eventually lifted the sanctions.

In light of the post-Brexit era, cost of living crisis, Russia-Ukraine War, and subsequent lack of oil supply, sanctions against Saudi Arabia, the home of the world’s largest accessible oil reserves, are not economically feasible: the UK would stand to lose around £8.9 billion of trade, of which 38.5 percent is refined oil.

Furthermore, Saudi’s Vision 2030 depends on significant amounts of foreign investment. If the West imposes sanctions, similar to the case of Russia, it is sure to cause some harm to Saudi’s economy. But with its good financial ties with East Asia, Saudi Arabia will easily turn to countries like Japan and China. The next question to ask is thus to what extent economic sanctions would liberalise Saudi Arabia’s political arena. The answer to that is: not much. One can only hope that the economic liberalisation will be a catalyst for civil change and political enlightenment in Saudi Arabia. But the Saudi monarchy has never been an advocate of civil liberty, so the shift will have to spring from the Saudi people.