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With Saudi Arabia reeling from the effects of COVID-19 and with an incoming Biden administration promising to focus on climate change, now is the time to put pressure on the regime to improve its human rights record
2020 has been a difficult year for most countries, but for a country heavily dependent on hydrocarbons like Saudi Arabia, falling oil demand has compounded its problems. The economic effects of the pandemic have seen the country dip into its fiscal reserves, endangering the Kingdom’s ambitious Vison 2030 reforms.
The need for fiscal tightening will likely have a knock-on effect on Saudi Arabia’s appetite for expensive vanity projects. The failed acquisition of Newcastle Football Club in particular may provide a better blueprint of things to come.
Indeed, Newcastle FC may have dodged a bullet. If economic woes deepen, it does not take a huge leap of logic to predict the recalling of investments for the sake of balancing the books. With renewed international focus on climate policy, Foreign Direct Investment into the Kingdom is also under scrutiny.
The incoming US administration has made clear that climate change will be at the heart of US foreign policy. The president-elect has committed to re-join the Paris Climate Agreement on day one of his presidency. Governments around the world have already identified climate action and global investment priorities as a key strategy to strengthen relations with the new administration.
In Saudi Arabia, oil and gas represent half of national GDP. Saudi Aramco alone contributes 60% of government revenue, and the government employs almost 70% of all working Saudis. The Kingdom languishes at the bottom of the Climate Change Performance Index making it an unlikely target of forward-thinking investment. There are serious concerns about how the Kingdom can weather the economic storm.
Young and well-educated citizens represent a vital demographic in Saudi Arabia. If they are economically marginalised due to the pandemic, this could generate social unrest and a governance crisis akin to the Arab Spring. Such a situation also represents both a risk and an opportunity for the international community. Now is the time to nudge the Kingdom towards meaningful reform, particularly on human rights.
The threat of diluting our participation at the G20 could make a very real difference to people’s suffering
The UK government has generally said the right things about improving the Saudi human rights record. There has been precious little action from the Kingdom, however, to back up their words. The same relationship seems to be found more broadly on the international stage. Saudi Arabia somehow seems to magically blur the line between global pariah and key international partner.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in Saudi Arabia’s hosting of the G20 this month. Following the assassination of Jamal Khashoggi, which US intelligence agencies believe was orchestrated at the behest of the Saudi Crown Prince, international reaction has been incoherent. Boycotts and public condemnation were quickly sidelined with the promise of potential Saudi investment.
With financial opportunities drying up, the UK should use this period of fragility to ensure our participation at the G20 comes with conditions.
The Crown Prince is desperate for positive publicity. This is obvious through the attempts at ‘sportswashing’ – using large sporting events to show the Kingdom in a positive light – and his lavish spending on pricey London PR companies.
A threat to boycott the G20 summit could be used as leverage to push for Saudis held without charge to be released. Mayors around the world, including London’s Sadiq Khan, as well as MPs from the European Parliament have joined in chorus, calling for countries and international bodies to boycott the G20. The UK Government should not back away, but should be leading this approach.
Remember – the Kingdom continues to commit human rights violations every single day. Hundreds remain in detention without trial in black sites across Saudi Arabia. This includes human rights defenders such as Loujain al-Hathloul and political detainees such as Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, the former Minister of the Interior. These abuses did not stop when world leaders moved on from the killing of Jamal Khashoggi.
If the UK is committed to human rights then we must act on that commitment. The threat of diluting our participation at the G20 could make a very real difference to people’s suffering. It would be criminal to miss such an opportunity.
Alistair Carmichael is the Liberal Democrat MP for Orkney and Shetland and Liberal Democrat spokesperson for home affairs, northern ireland and constitutional reform.