UK complicit in human rights violations in Saudi Arabia: Rights groups

alma al-Shehab, 34, a mother of two young children and a student at Leeds University, was detained in Saudi Arabia in January 2021 when she was visiting home for a vacation. (Photo by Democracy Now!)

A group of rights advocates have voiced concern that the UK government may be complicit in human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia, citing lack of clarity over what the Persian Gulf Strategy Fund (GSF) supports in the kingdom.

In a report published on Tuesday, Middle East Eye quoted some campaigners as saying that at a time when the human rights situation is deteriorating in Saudi Arabia, uncertainty about what the GSF is supporting in the kingdom raises questions about whether the UK is bolstering institutions involved in abuses.

The report added that the GSF, which has so far given £70 million ($80mn) to six Persian Gulf states, has been criticized by members of parliament and rights groups for leaving the public largely in the dark about how it is run and taxpayer money is spent.

The latest report comes as women's rights are removed from a description of what the GSF supports in Saudi Arabia, a week after Riyadh sentenced a Leeds University student and women's rights activist to 34 years in prison for following and retweeting the critics of the kingdom on Twitter.

In June last year, the UK government  published a brief summary of what the GSF supports, saying it "bolsters the strategic partnership and delivers mutual prosperity and security by supporting Saudi Arabia's Vision 2030 reforms across priority sectors in line with UK values, including women's rights".

But in the Saudi Arabia section of a new summary published on August 26, a week after Salma al-Shehab’s 34-year sentence over her tweets made headlines, women's rights are no longer referenced at all. 

Lina al-Hathloul, head of monitoring and communications for the human rights group Alqst, said the newly published summary "still doesn't provide clear and transparent answers" and questioned how the GSF is supporting human rights in Saudi Arabia.

"If GSF funding still includes support to government institutions in Saudi Arabia, the UK could be complicit in bodies carrying out or whitewashing human rights abuses," she said.

"This includes the Human Rights Commission that denied the torture of Saudi women's rights activists despite having visited them and seeing the signs of torture firsthand on the activists' bodies."

Dana Ahmed, Middle East and Persian Gulf researcher at Amnesty International, described the fund "extremely concerning", saying Saudi Arabia's dire human rights record of silencing dissenting voices, executing individuals, and ruthlessly crushing the basic rights of citizens and residents needs to be thoroughly addressed.

"The UK government must ensure complete transparency of these funds and how it is supporting human rights. Otherwise, the UK is essentially supporting the continued repression of people in the kingdom," she said.

Ever since Mohammed bin Salman became Saudi Arabia’s de facto leader in 2017, the kingdom has arrested hundreds of activists, bloggers, intellectuals and others for their political activism, showing almost zero tolerance for dissent even in the face of international condemnation of the crackdown.

Muslim scholars have been executed and women’s rights campaigners have been put behind bars and tortured as freedom of expression, association, and belief continue to be denied by the kingdom's authorities.

Over the past years, Riyadh has also redefined its anti-terrorism laws to target activism.

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