Strasbourg round-up: EU-Saudi Arabia relations

Written by Ana Gomes, Annemie Neyts-Uyttebroeck, Barbara Lochbihler, Susy De Martini and Barbara Matera on 4 March 2014 in Special Report
Special Report

Key rapporteurs Ana Gomes, Annemie Neyts-Uyttebroeck, Barbara Lochbihler, Susy De Martini and Barbara Matera look at the EU's relations with Saudi Arabia.

Ana Gomes is parliament's rapporteur on Saudi Arabia, its relations with the EU and its role in the Middle East and north Africa

Saudi Arabia is an important country in the Middle East and beyond; in political, economic terms and also in the fight against terrorism. Yet, the country's stance does not always favour global security, namely in the fight against terrorism, even if Riyadh is itself threatened with terrorist acts. Orthodox Wahhabi proselytising by some Saudi organisations and individuals inspires and supports the activities of fundamentalist and extremist groups in several countries and regions, causing high human suffering from Syria to Egypt, from Bahrain to Libya, Mali, Iraq, Afghanistan or Pakistan. This should no longer be ignored or neglected in the context of EU-Saudi relations, as pointed out in my report adopted this week by the European parliament - the first ever on this country.

The EU and its member states should not continue in 'business as usual' mode, overvaluing the economic and security dimensions - in light of Saudi Arabia being the world's largest oil producer, its role in the Gulf cooperation council, its G20 seat or even as a major arms buyer and trade partner. My report stresses the strategic dimension of the relationship between the union and Riyadh, shedding light on converging areas, but also those in which we disagree.

Despite it being an absolutist monarchy, Saudi Arabia has international law obligations, as a UN member and as party to a number of international human rights treaties. Religious freedom and other fundamental rights, women's rights, minority rights and migrant rights are topics that must be central to the EU-Saudi dialogue.

As I personally witnessed in my visit last November to Riyadh, political, social and economic life in the country is marked by gender segregation and discrimination against women, including keeping most of them out of the job market, despite the high level of educated and qualified women in the country. Only last year were the first 30 women appointed to the Shura council, whereas only in 2015 will women be allowed to vote for the first time in the country's municipal elections. The male guardianship system granting legal authority over women to a family member (be it their husband, father, brother or even son) offends women's dignity and entails a gross violation of their human rights. The EU must invest its efforts in supporting those in Saudi Arabia who work to end all sorts of discrimination against women, both in public and private spheres, including in their access to justice and in their continuing bar from driving.

However, it is not only women suffering from the denial of human rights in Saudi Arabia: the death penalty continues to be applied even to minors and often in public, in the framework of a medieval justice system that lacks basic guarantees, controlled by judges of religious extraction not bound by any codified criminal law. Europe can certainly do much more to persuade Riyadh to end widespread arbitrary detentions, torture and ill-treatment of prisoners, harassment of NGOs and human rights defenders. The EU needs to be more vocal in demanding respect for minority rights, and specifically for the Shiite community, in urging the abolition of the 'kefala' system and the abusive ill-treatment of migrants and also in stressing that religious freedom includes the right to public worship.

The parliament considers that more European engagement with Saudi Arabia can bear results and changes in these and in other areas vital to address tensions and contradictions present today in Saudi society, which has a young population vibrantly active in social networks but increasingly resenting the asphyxia and the opportunities missed.

Regionally, as well, Saudi Arabia can achieve much more if it changes, by favouring, instead of negatively reacting to progress in the 3+3 negotiations aimed at putting Iran's nuclear programme under international supervision. The EU should encourage Riyadh and Tehran to normalise relations and end their proxy war in Syria, to contribute to the stabilisation of Pakistan and Afghanistan and to open the way for progress in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.


Annemie Neyts-Uyttebroeck is parliament's ALDE group shadow rapporteur on Saudi Arabia, its relations with the EU and its role in the Middle East and north Africa

Saudi Arabia is a strategic partner of the EU and an influential political, economic and religious actor in the Middle East and the world. Saudi Arabia plays a key role in terms of regional stability and has taken decisive measures to combat terrorism and to control financial activities linked to terrorism. At the same time, they promote a rigorous Salafi/Wahhabi interpretation of Islam and offer financial, military and political support to some extremist groups, as in Pakistan, Afghanistan or Mali.

The changing political and strategic context in the Middle East and north Africa region necessitates a reassessment of EU-Saudi Arabia relations. We call on Saudi Arabia to collaborate constructively to a peaceful outcome of the Syrian conflict, the dialogue with Iran, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and also the national dialogue in Bahrain. EU and Saudi Arabia face common global challenges, such as migration, energy security and international terrorism. As such, we must reinforce our dialogue to cooperate while being consistent with our aims and values.

Being a member of the UN human rights council is a positive expression of will, but also a commitment that raises expectations. As assessed in the opinion of parliament's women's rights and gender equality committee, the rights of women and girls in Saudi Arabia are especially worrying. Some positive incentives have been implemented, resulting in an increasing participation of women in politics and business, but a deeper change of mentalities is needed, starting with the revocation of the male guardianship system and all restrictions on women's human rights and freedoms.

Greater efforts are also to be made in favour of freedoms of expression, of media, of religions, to protect minorities and to facilitate the work of human rights organisations. Finally, Saudi Arabia must intensify the judicial system of reforms and continue reforming its labour laws, to offer better protection to immigrant workers and abolish the sponsorship system.


Barbara Lochbihler is chair of parliament's human rights subcommittee and is Greens/EFA group shadow rapporteur on Saudi Arabia, its relations with the EU and its role in the Middle East and north Africa

I welcome the adoption of the Saudi Arabia report on 11 March. After years of silence about the numerous human rights challenges in the country - with the EPP and other conservative colleagues blocking anything that came even close to criticism of Riyadh - parliament has at last voiced its concern over women's rights, the situation of migrant workers, the persecution of human rights activists, cases of torture and the death penalty in Saudi Arabia.

In the many discussions I have had with Saudi authorities, it has become clear that an open and honest dialogue is possible. For such a dialogue to truly benefit both sides, however, it should go beyond merely economic talks, and also include debates about the universal character and consistent respect of human rights.

In this context, it is totally absurd that the EPP managed to delete all language on European arms exports to Saudi Arabia from our report. The European code of conduct explicitly forbids arms exports to countries systematically violating human rights, or which risk using those weapons against their own population or, more generally, in conflict zones. Both apply to Saudi Arabia. Nonetheless, Riyadh ranks among the best clients of European arms producers.

Not a problem for my conservative colleagues, obviously. Without a single reference to human rights or European legislation, they preferred one-sidedly emphasising the importance of Saudi Arabia for the European defence sector. If that is their understanding of partnership and open dialogue with Saudi Arabia, so be it. It is not mine.


Susy De Martini is parliament's ECR shadow rapporteur on Saudi Arabia, its relations with the EU and its role in the Middle East and north Africa

While I voted in favour of this report, I believe, however, that it fails to adequately balance the importance of strong bilateral relations between Saudi Arabia and the EU with legitimate concerns over Riyadh's human rights record. Instead the report is almost entirely dominated by the latter. In fact, the report does not adequately recognise progress made by the kingdom of Saudi Arabia in some aspects of human rights and equality, in particular with regard to the role of women.

The report also does not properly consider the important role played by Saudi Arabia in counter-terrorism or EU-Saudi trade relations. I therefore feel that while I am able to vote in favour of the report, I also consider it to be a missed opportunity to engage positively with the kingdom of Saudi Arabia, stressing existing relations as a key strategic partner in the region, proposing measures to strengthen EU-Saudi links, and also to work constructively with them to improve their human rights record.


Barbara Matera is parliament's women's rights and gender equality committee opinion rapporteur on Saudi Arabia, its relations with the EU and its role in the Middle East and north Africa

While Saudi Arabia may be the only country in the world that does not allow women to drive, it has made significant reforms for women in the past few years. In 2015, Saudi Arabian women will finally be able to be candidates in local elections. In line with this, last year, king Abdullah appointed 30 women to serve on the Shura council. Since Saudi Arabia is an Islamic absolute monarchy, this top advisory body suggests legislation directly to the king.

In September of last year, a law was passed by the cabinet to stop domestic violence. Saudi Arabia has also begun its first anti-domestic violence ad campaign. While it is important to acknowledge progress made thus far, this domestic violence law does not mention marital rape and it ignores the issue of male guardianship, which will make prosecution extremely difficult.

The World Bank report 'Women, business and the law 2014-removing restrictions to enhance gender equality' names Saudi Arabia as the number one country that most limits the economic potential of its female citizens. Only 18 per cent of Saudi Arabian women are employed, but they form the majority of college graduates in the country. It ranked 134th out of 136 countries in the world economic forum's 2013 global gender gap report. Hopefully, parliament's report will help strengthen Saudi Arabia's political will and create a minimum age for marriage and eliminate the male guardianship system.

Finally, though women's rights remain at a low level, it is very important to appreciate the reforms that have been made. I have worked hard to make sure that the EU puts women rights in Saudi Arabia at the top of bilateral relations. I am convinced that it will be extremely difficult for Saudi Arabia to grow so long as it continues to hold back half of its population.

About the author

Ana Gomes is parliament's rapporteur on Saudi Arabia, its relations with the EU and its role in the Middle East and north Africa

Annemie Neyts-Uyttebroeck is parliament's ALDE group shadow rapporteur on Saudi Arabia, its relations with the EU and its role in the Middle East and north Africa

Barbara Lochbihler is chair of parliament's human rights subcommittee and is Greens/EFA group shadow rapporteur on Saudi Arabia, its relations with the EU and its role in the Middle East and north Africa

Susy De Martini is parliament's ECR shadow rapporteur on Saudi Arabia, its relations with the EU and its role in the Middle East and north Africa

Barbara Matera is parliament's women's rights and gender equality committee opinion rapporteur on Saudi Arabia, its relations with the EU and its role in the Middle East and north Africa

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