Free Raif Badawi and all prisoners of conscience, because such a precedent would create more opportunities for human rights reforms in Saudi Arabia, writes Alyn Smith.
MEP Alyn Smith is a Scottish, SNP member of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the European Parliament and a member of the Arab Peninsula Delegation. You can follow him on Twitter @AlynSmithMEP, or visit his website, www.alynsmith.eu
As a member of the European Parliament who grew up in Saudi Arabia, I think a genuine and honest dialogue between Saudis and Europeans is needed urgently. On 29 October, the European Parliament awarded Saudi blogger Raif Badawi the EU’s top human rights prize, the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Expression.
I suspect the official response of Saudi authorities will be an outright rejection of what will be seen as intervention in internal affairs. We in Scotland do not want to be seen as giving lessons to the Saudis. We know how the Middle East remembers British imperialism. However, I am convinced that there is such a thing as universal values that we, from Edinburgh to Brussels to Riyadh, must uphold.
Raif Badawi has been sentenced to 1000 lashes and 10 years in prison for expressing his personal view on his blog stating that “Muslims, Jews, Christians and atheists are equal”. Many Saudis have asked me why the European Parliament has focused on him only. The fact of the matter is that Raif Badawi’s case has become a well-known, emblematic figure, but we do not forget the others. We in the European Parliament have repeatedly called on Saudi Arabia to release him in formal resolutions, but also all prisoners of conscience – including his lawyer Waleed, now serving a 15 years prison sentence.
As a Scottish National Party MEP I ask, will the UK Conservative government actually review its arms sales to Saudi Arabia, like Sweden just did? We know the answer. But I trust time has come to discuss all matters of importance to Saudi Arabia and Europe, beyond the usual energy and counter-terrorism debates, and that includes human rights. As I told the Vice-President of Saudi Arabia’s Shura Council recently, our constituents share the position of Saudi Arabia’s civil society that progressive reforms are necessary.
I know Saudis have great potential for progressive and gradual reform. For example, Saudi writer Zuhair Kutbi’s ideas for peaceful reform should not have led to his latest arrest and arbitrary detention, in violation of Saudi Arabia’s own Law of Criminal Procedure. As a lawyer by trade, I call on King Salman to fulfill his reform agenda and reinforce the rule of law at a time when hundreds of Saudis are held without trial. Labour rights, women’s rights or the fight against the death penalty are subjects we can no longer avoid in EU-Saudi relations.
But let us avoid misunderstandings – and from my perspective there have been too many, which is why many Saudis lack trust in our words.
First, I have a great respect for the Saudi people, who welcomed me in their country for 8 unforgettable years. We in Europe should welcome Saudi students, academics and researchers in much larger numbers, not only because education and training is key to Saudi Arabia’s post-fossil fuel future, but also because we have almost no knowledge of Saudi culture. They have gladly watched many of our films -including Braveheart, surely. What do Europeans know about Saudis?
Second, how often do we genuinely invest in Saudi Arabia beyond buying their oil and gas? Many have learnt English, we have not learnt Arabic. I am unfortunately the only Member of the European Parliament who writes in Arabic on Twitter, while the institution repeatedly declines to translate its work into Arabic. This even applies to its official resolutions on the Arab world.
I believe there is so much we can do, if only we started listening to each other. Saudi Arabia feels less and less courted by world powers due to falling energy prices, US disengagement from the Middle East, the latest Iran deal, and is now warned by the IMF that it will run out of financial assets in 5 years. I see that as an opportunity to change our relationship for the better. Economically, Scotland and Europe now have plenty to offer for Saudi Arabia to diversify its industry – over 35% of Scotland’s electricity comes from wind power, and renewable energies will be needed sooner than expected.
Free Raif Badawi and all prisoners of conscience, not because the European Parliament says so, but because there are so many essential projects we can work on only if Saudi Arabia’s human rights record improves.