The delegation visit to Saudi Arabia took place at an interesting time. The country had just recently inherited a new king after the death of the late King Abdullah bin AbdulAziz and had witnessed a smooth transition onto his half-brother, the now King Salman of Saudi Arabia.
As the world showed their respects and flew flags half mast, Saudi Arabia also faced fierce scrutiny after sentencing the Saudi writer and liberal activist, Raif Badawi, to 1000 lashes and 10 years in prison for criticising religious authorities.
It was against this background of composure muddled with agitation that the Foreign Affairs (AFET) Delegation for the Arab Peninsula visited Saudi Arabia as part of the 12th EP/Saudi Interparliamentary meeting.
The overarching aim of the delegation was to push for greater EU-Saudi/GCC cooperation. And as European Parliament had just recently passed a strong resolution on human rights in light of the Raif Badawi case, some very intringuing discussions took place.
On Human Rights
A meeting with the Chairman of the National Society for Human Rights, HE Dr Mufleh Al-Kahtani, showed that the human rights movement in Saudi is expanding both in size and scope, as more volunteers join the ranks and work extends to include prison visits, domestic violence cases and worker’s rights.
The Saudi Human Rights Society spoke about their involvement in the Raif Badawai case, having visited him a number of times. They believe Badawi’s best chance of release lies with royal pardon.
We also met Raif Badawi’s sister who is actively involved in the campaign to release him and is regularly providing human rights organisations updates on her progress.
After a lengthy discussion with a senior judge and a member of the human rights society, weaknesses in the current Saudi judicial system were acknowleged. Reviews on various aspects of the judicial system are underway, particularly legislation pertaining to Qur’anic law. Contrary to what we might initially think, human rights activists are using the fact that much of Saudi law has no basis in the Qur’an to reform the judicial system.
The International Situation
A meeting with the Undersecretary for Multilateral Affairs, Prince Turki Al Kabeer, made for important discussion on terrorism in the region with particular reference to his concern over growing levels of extremism and Islamophobia in the EU.
He also welcomed the European resolution to recognise the State of Palestine and agreed to boost bilateral relations in a number of areas including counter-terrorism, investment and education.
Women Elected to the Majlis Al Shura (Saudi Consultative Council)
For the first time in its history, the Majlis As Shura had appointed 30 female members, some of whom we met with. They were clearly highly educated women and some had studied in Western countries.
They spoke of a marked improvement in the integration of women in the labour market and huge investments towards education for girls and women.
The Shura welcomed our visit and were keen to continue building relations with the European Parliament.
On a Free Trade Agreement with the GCC
Whilst progress on EU-GCC relations is slower than it ideally should, both parties welcomes strengthening relations
particularly in areas of common interest.
Having said this, the GCC countries are making good progress between themselves strengthening cooperation on various fronts such as free-movement, trade, telecommunication, policing and security issues.
Meeting with EU Ambassadors
A meeting with Ambassadors of 19 EU countries expressed that a balanced approach to addressing Saudi/GCC issues is vital. It is important that the European Parliament maintains pressure on issues such as human rights whilst acknowledging the progress they have made towards stability, peace and equality.
Saudi Arabia is an important country in the Middle East and beyond; in political, economic terms and also in the fight against terrorism. Despite some significant changes and improvements, much development is still needed both in terms of human rights in the country itself and in terms of EU – Saudi relations. One particular point that struck me as food for thought was a view that Europe can be quick to criticise when something goes wrong, but then very little is said of all the good progress that is made. I think the underlying point to remember for all of us is that change takes time – it took Europeans centuries to get to where it is now since the enlightenment and change is still not yet complete. This is not to say we should silence our concerns, but only that perhaps a more balanced commentary would be a fairer approach.