Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Posts Tagged ‘Saudi Arabia’

MBS Comes to Town

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 7th March, 2018

Mohammed bin Salman billboard vansThe Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman, has been in London today, getting right royal treatment befitting of a state visit, with lunch with the Queen, tea at 10 Downing Street and dinner with Prince Charles. There was some bemusement yesterday among Londoners as electronic billboard vans drove round the city welcoming MBS’s arrival, and today many newspapers had three half-page spreads reinforcing that message. For anyone familiar with the Gulf monarchies that is not in the least surprising, however; rulers and their crown princes are celebrated with giant pictures everywhere in their home territories, including whole sides of multi-storey buildings. Such apparent vaingloriousness is infra dig in Britain, but we should remember that we started eroding the power of absolute monarchs 800 years ago, whereas Saudi Arabia is a kingdom only 80-odd years old.

Mohammed bin Salman with Queen Elizabeth I was kept busy myself today, doing both television and radio interviews about the prince’s visit, as well as attending a session on youth’s place in Saudi Arabia’s 2030 Vision, at the Dorchester Hotel (where else?). Several people elsewhere asked me outright: well, are you for or against this visit? As one might expect from someone with a background in Reuters and the BBC, and with one foot in academe, I answered in more nuanced terms. As Saudi Arabia is a signatory to the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights and actually sits on the UN Human Rights Council it must expect its domestic human rights record to come under scrutiny. The detention of dissidents has increased since MBS’s sudden ascendancy to the role of neo-dauphin and the rate of executions has actually doubled these last few months. Similarly, the immense human cost of the war in Yemen — exacerbated by the blockade of the port of Hodeidah, which has caused widespread malnutrition — is a legitimate cause for concern, even anger, made more acute by the fact that British arms sales (and some advice) has been helping the Saudi war effort there. However, on the other side of the coin, MBS (with his father’s approval, presumably) has ushered in some reforms that are noteworthy, such as the lifting of the ban on women driving later this year and at least a partial crackdown on corruption, as well as the introduction of VAT as a new source of tax revenue. So he should not be condemned out of hand, but neither should he be the object of unqualified praise. As I quipped on BBC Radio London this afternoon, under MBS’s guidance Saudi Arabia has entered the 20th century, but it hasn’t yet arrived in the 21st.


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Yemen in Crisis

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 26th February, 2018

Yemen in CrisisThe ancient Romans referred to Yemen as Arabia Felix, but there is little that is happy about the country now. Often divided in modern history, it is now in danger of total disintegration. With only very limited oil resources, it is by far the poorest country in the Middle East, and unlike the other states located in the Arabian peninsula, it has never been allowed to join the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) — though the cohesion and usefulness of the GCC itself have been undermined with the recent stand-off with Qatar. Far more acute than the lack of oil, however, is Yemen’s depleted source of water; Sana’a risks becoming the world’s first capital city to run out of water completely. In rural areas that used to be fertile, subsistence agriculture is a dwindling lifestyle, as predominantly young men migrate to the cities in search of work. Such migration is of course a common feature of many developing countries, but it has been more acute in Yemen than in many other states. Moreover, the government of the late President Ali Abdullah Saleh compounded the situation by its corrupt handling of the economy, which enriched a small elite while impoverishing the masses. Hence the size and vigour of the anti-Saleh demonstrations that erupted during the 2011 so-called Arab Spring.

Yemen conflict 2However, even at the height of the uprising, the situation in Yemen was never black and white. There was always a complex nexus of rivalries, based on tribal loyalties, regional variations and a certain degree of religious difference. All too often the current conflict in Yemen is over-simplified as a battle between the Sunni-backed internationally-recognised but largely exiled government of Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi and the Shi’i-backed Huthi rebels, but as Helen Lackner’s excellent book, Yemen in Crisis (Saqi, £25), explains with admirable clarity, Yemen’s modern history is far more complex than that. And as she points out, the military intervention of a Saudi-led coalition in 2015 turned a political and humanitarian crisis into a catastrophe. The Saudi blockade of the port of Hodeidah, for example, led to widespread malnutrition — not least among infants — that has been described by the United Nations as the most serious humanitarian crisis of our time. A major outbreak of cholera last year compounded the situation. As Helen Lackner rightly argues, the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman probably launched the Yemen War in the hope that a quick victory would cement his rise to power. But nearly three years on, the situation is a quagmire and it is the Yemeni people who are suffering.

Helen Lackner is the ideal guide for readers wanting to understand some of Yemen’s complexities and how it has ended up in its current dire situation. She worked in the country for 15 years — largely in the field of rural development — and has been researching it for far longer. Her love of the place and its people shines through the text, which is academically sound but totally accessible to the general reader. I travelled widely in Yemen myself in the 1980s and 1990s, which Ms Lackner now sees as the good old days. Whether it will ever be possible for such a period of relative calm to return in the near future remains to be seen, but even if so, the cost of reconstruction is going to be gargantuan, as the destruction of Yemen’s infrastructure and unique cultural heritage continues apace.

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Is the GCC Unravelling?

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 11th November, 2017

C0F4FE57-2826-47BC-B8AE-6C6F8B4B45BCThe Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf, more commonly known by its previous name, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), has been in existence since 1981 and aims at a degree of economic integration between Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the UAE and Oman as well as cooperation in other fields, but some of its more ambitious plans have been quietly shelved. Following the launch of the euro there was talk of moving towards a single GCC currency, to be called the khaleeji (Gulfi), but Oman said it would need to opt out and enthusiasm waned elsewhere. Then at the time of the so-called Arab Spring in 2011, tentative moves were made to bring two other Arab monarchies, Jordan and Morocco, into the fold, despite neither being in the Gulf. However, the one obvious geographical absentee absentee is Iraq, which overthrew it’s short-lived monarchy in 1958, was never a serious contender while Saddam Hussein was in power and has been equally unpalatable to the Sunni Arab monarchs since Shia-dominated governments have been in charge in Baghdad following the 2003 US-led invasion. When there was stronger than usual unrest among Bahrain’s majority Shi’i population in 2011, Saudi Arabia and the UAE sent in troops to help the Al Khalifa monarchy quash it. Since then, Iran has been the focus of much of the GCC’s animosity, notably from Saudi Arabia, which sees itself as Tehran’s rival for regional hegemony. But since this summer, another deeply complicating factor has emerged: the embargo of Qatar by Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE, mainly because of the activities of the Doha-based TV channel, Al Jazeera, and Qatar’s alleged cosying up to Iran (with which it shares a gigantic gas field). Kuwait has been trying to mediate, while the wily ruler of Oman, Sultan Qaboos, is keeping well out of it. The Saudi Foreign Minister the other day downplayed the importance of the row, but it has inevitably made the facade of GCC unity crumble. And if the standoff continues for long, the GCC would be in real danger of unravelling.

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Landmark Ruling on Arms Protesters

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 16th April, 2016

DSEI protestEight anti-armaments campaigners, who were charged with blocking the entrance to last September’s giant arms fair in London, DSEI 2016, were this week found not guilty, on the grounds that they had acted in good faith to prevent an even greater crime. After listening to four days of often passionate testimony, the judge said the court had heard compelling evidence of the role of weapons on sale at DSEI in repression and human rights abuses. During the trial, the defendants had particularly highlighted the use of weapons in Saudi Arabia’s attacks in Yemen, the suppression of  dissent in Bahrain and Turkey’s military activities in predominantly Kurdish areas of the country. They also argued that some illegal types of weapon had been openly displayed at the Fair. An estimated 30,000 visitors went to the Fair despite the disruption by protesters. DSEI is one of the largest such events in the world and a,though another one is planned for next year, anti-war campaigners are determined to be out in force on that occasion too.


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Cameron’s Shameful Saudi Arms Sales

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 26th February, 2016

Yemen strikesWhen he visited the BAE Systems factory in Preston yesterday UK Prime Minister David Cameron boasted of his success in helping promote “brilliant” arms sales top Saudi Arabia, whereas he should have hung his head in shame. Of course the Desert Kingdom and other Gulf states have the right to defend themselves and it is natural that Britain, as a major arms producer, should wish to corner an important part of a lucrative market. However, Saudi Arabia is not a normal case, for at least two reasons. The first is the air campaign it has been waging in Yemen, which has caused not only immense physical damage — including, reportedly, to all the country’s universities — but serious civilian loss of life. All this in by far the poorest country on the Arabian peninsula, in which hundreds of thousands of people, especially children are suffering from acute malnutrition. The second reason for Britain to balk at its cosy relationship with Saudi Arabia, rather than bask in it, is the Kingdom’s egregious human rights record. Since King Salman came to power, far from reducing the number of executions Saudi Arabia has accelerated their number. Medieval punishments are carried out under the false flag of religion, while women are still denied a full place in society and those who dare criticise the system, such as the liberal blogger Raif Badawi, face imprisonment, flogging or worse. The European Parliament rightly called for an arms embargo against Saudi Arabia this week, because of the Yemen conflict, though Mr Cameron’s Conservative MEPs failed to back that resolution. Labour politicians Jeremy Corbyn and Hilary Benn, to their credit, have spoken out in Britain and Tim Farron and other Liberal Democrat figures have also made their revulsion known. But the spotlight needs to be turned on David Cameron, who is presiding over a government that has put human rights concerns on a back burner and which celebrates making billions from arms that are not for legitimate defence but for offensive action beyond Saudi’s borders and sometimes for domestic oppression as well.

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Happy New Year, Saudi-style

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 2nd January, 2016

Embedded image permalinkThe Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has long had one of the highest levels of capital punishment implementation in the world, but this year it has really excelled itself by welcoming in the New Year by executing 47 individuals today in various parts of the country. The official reason is that these people were convicted of terrorism; having not been present at the trials I cannot comment on the legitimacy of the verdicts, however there are several important points to make about the sentences. The first, of course, is about the death penalty itself. In the European Union, it is not allowed. Indeed, any country aspiring to join the EU must remove capital punishment from their statute books; Turkey, for example, has done this. But the European objection to the death penalty is global in its concern, not regional, which is why governments such as the UK’s should be taking a public stand. They do it against ISIS/Daesh, correctly, and they should do it against that key Western “ally”, Saudi Arabia. David Cameron please note.

Nimr al-NimrSecond, there is the question of the impact of today’s executions, both inside Saudi Arabia and in the wider Middle East. Notably, one of those executed was a prominent Shia cleric, Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr. This will not only inflame passions among Saudi Arabia’s Shia minority, concentrated in the Eastern Province, but has already brought howls of outrage from the most significant Shia-majority country in the region, Iran. Saudi Arabia and Iran are already fierce rivals in the Middle East (and are supporting opposite sides in the conflict in Yemen) and this latest development will only make things worse. Moreover, it is likely to exacerbate tensions between Sunni and Shia communities across the Gulf and the Middle East. If the government in Riyadh wished to cool passions in the restless Eastern Province they have alas succeeded in doing the opposite.

Cameron Saudi 4Finally, there is the question: should this be our business, or something just for Saudis themselves to comment on? I believe the answer should be an unequivocal “yes, it is our business”. Apart from the objection in principle to the death penalty, discussed above, there is the fact that there are particularly strong ties between the Desert Kingdom and Great Britain, both between the governments and between the two royal families. This relationship is something that should be reviewed. Behind-the-scenes diplomatic pressure has had no effect. The number of executions (many of them public beheadings) went up last year and after today’s executions (some by beheading, others byfiring squads) 2016 looks like being a record year. It is time for Britain and other Western countries to make it clear that we believe that human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia, including the extraordinary number of executions, are not acceptable in the 21st century. The Saudi monarchy seems intent on bringing about its own downfall, and if/when that happens, we should not be seen to have failed to take the side of humanity and justice.

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Keeping Christmas Special

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 24th December, 2015

nativity sceneOver the past few days, Brunei, Somalia and Tajikistan (to name only those I have spotted in the news) have banned celebrating Christmas. To that list one can of course add Saudi Arabia, where Islam is the only permitted religion. I find it sad that the Islamic fundamentalism — much of it promoted by Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabi imams — should lead to such prohibitions. After all, Jesus is a prophet recognised in Islam as well as in Christianity. I have spent several Christmases in more inclusive Gulf countries such as the UAE and there it is not just the Christians who enter into a spirit of celebration.

church congregationThis year I am spending Christmas in Rwanda, which is a predominantly Christian East African country, mainly Roman Catholic. Last night in the market near my hotel there was a brisk trade in artificial Christmas trees and associated decorations and it was only last night that the hotel started playing Christmas music in the restaurant. That struck me because that’s how Christmas used to be in Europe and North America: arriving suddenly and offering just a few days of merry festivities. These days, alas, thanks to commercialisation, that sometimes magical intensity has been lost. The shops are full of Christmas merchandise in October, Christmas lights go up in major high streets at the end of November and stay up well into January. Everyone is encouraged to consume as much as possible for as long as possible, including food and drink, until we are physically and mentally bloated and desperate for Christmas to be over. That’s a pity, as Christmas should be a significant occasion, both spiritually and as a time to be close to loved ones, whether family, partners or friends. Perhaps in the West we need to remember how to make Christmas special, and keep it that way.

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Shout out for Raif Badawi

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 17th December, 2015

imageYesterday, at the European Parliament, the wife of Saudi liberal blogger Raif Badawi, Ensaf Haidar,  collected the Sakharov Prize on his behalf. An empty chair had a prominent place in the proceedings, as Badawi himself is still in prison for the “crime” of expressing his view that Saudi Arabia should become more democratic, and allegedly insulting Islam. His sentence was 10 years and 1,000 lashes, the latter to be administered in batches of 50 every Friday, though after the first dose of this medieval punishment he has been considered too unfit to receive it. But he has now been in jail for more than 1,300 days. The agony of not knowing each week whether he will be flogged or not is a form of torture no country should impose upon anyone. The new Canadian Liberal Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, has called for Badawi to be pardoned and to be allowed to join his wife and three small children in Canada, where they have wisely sought safe haven. Although Saudi’s major trading partners (and arms suppliers), the United States and Britain, have put some sotto voce diplomatic pressure on Riyadh regarding the case, this has had no effect. Something stronger is needed, in the form of sanctions. Although there is the occasional glimmer of positive developments in the Desert Kingdom, such as the recent election of women municipal councillors in the first election in which women have been allowed to vote, there is much about the country’s legal system that is barbaric — including the high number of executions — and unfit for the 21st century. The West was not shy about condemning the faults of Communist states when Communism held sway in the Soviet Union and central and Eastern Europe, and it should not flinch from turning that critical eye on Saudi Arabia now.

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International Human Rights Day

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 10th December, 2015

Human Rights DayThe Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly 67 years ago today, but the fight for rights is as necessary as ever, not just in totalitarian states and conflict zones round the world but even in so-called mature democracies. Each International Human Rights Day (IHRD), 10 December, is a useful moment to take stock of the situation worldwide and the picture in 2015 is particularly depressing. Islamophobia and anti-Semitism are on the rise as part of the collateral damage to the war against ISIS/Daesh and other Middle Eastern and North African conflicts; countries including China, Saudi Arabia, the United States and Iran continue to implement the death penalty, in many cases for “crimes” that would not even be considered as such in much of the world.

capital punishmentThe theme of this year’s IHRD is “Our Rights. Our Freedoms. Always”, which at many levels is so broad as to be almost meaningless in campaigning terms, but the idea was to commemorate the 50th anniversary next year (sic) of the adoption of International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Despite being equally broad-brush, these covenants are considered important frameworks for putting pressure on governments that are denying their people a decent livelihood or suppressing their freedoms.

amnesty pngOf course, despite the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, not every country or society agrees on their definition. Uganda, where I am at present, continues to harass LGBTi activists, for example, with the tacit support of much of the local population. Apostasy is still a capital crime in Saudi Arabia, while freedom or religion (and the freedom to choose) is a core value of democratic societies. Double standards are moreover evident in so many fields and it is not always the Western democracies that are innocent. They were right to express outrage at Russia occupation/annexation of Crimea, for example, yet most (with a few honorable exceptions such as Sweden) have remained relatively mute about Israel’s 48-year occupation of Palestine; Russia is the subject of sanctions, Israel hardly at all.

However, that does not mean we should give up in despair. NGOs in particular have an important role to play in furthering economic, social and cultural rights, as well as civil and political ones — not least in holding governments to account. But governments, such as Britain’s, also should not shirk their duty to stand up for what they say support, and the same goes for the European Union. So even if IHRD may seem vacuous at times it is important to remind us of all that needs to be done to promote human rights, both individually and collectively.

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Standing up to Saudi Arabia

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 22nd November, 2015

imageDavid Cameron and other British government Ministers have been busy demonstrating the warmth of their relationship with Saudi Arabia in recent months which begs the question: why? Of course, the Desert Kingdom uses a significant part of its oil wealth to purchase arms and other products and services from Britain, but in which ways do the two countries’ values coincide? Certainly both are sworn enemies of self-styled Islamic State (ISIS), yet individual Saudis have been funding that nefarious group. Moreover it is not difficult to see how the twisted ideology of ISIS has roots in the Wahhabi version of fundamentalist Islam, which Saudi Arabia has been aggressively exporting throughout the Islamic world, as well as among Muslim communities elsewhere. This creed is the very antithesis of the sort of tolerant multiculturalism that is needed in an increasingly globalised world, condemning as false believers not only non-Muslims but also Shia and other Muslims who do not adhere to Wahhabism’s narrow sectarianism. Yemen is an overwhelmingly Muslim country but it is being battered by Saudi Arabia with huge cost to both people and the country’s rich cultural heritage in an ongoing war that has received little criticism in the West.

Raif BadawiHowever, the thing that really alarms me is the way that the UK’s Conservative government seems blind to the appalling human rights abuses that continue in the Kingdom. Executions this year are running at an obscenely high level, one of the latest to be condemned to death being the Palestinian poet and artist Asraf Fayadh, on the medieval charge of apostasy. Crucifixion is still practised in extreme cases as well as barbaric punishments that should have no place in the 21st century. The blogger Raif Badawi is still liable to be lashed every Friday just for writing about liberalism. The great victory at the end of World War II was the acknowledgment in 1948 that human rights are universal. All UN member states have signed up to that, including Saudi Arabia. It is time for Britain and other countries around the world to put pressure on the Saudis to live up to that commitment.

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