Saudi Arabia 2023 has been reputed for its grand projects on commerce, tourism, and energy sectors while the country also enjoys lavish financial relationships with big corporations to promote its ambitious projects inside the country. Riyadh hosted diverse sports events last year while the country has also been active in holding political meetings and conferences. Few months ago, just days into the Israel-Hamas conflict, the kingdom hosted the big economic tycoons from Wall Street and elsewhere under the annual Future Investment Initiative.
The country’s human rights record last year seems to have improved compared to the 2010s during which it had faced multiple abuse and infringement allegations. Saudi Arabia passed and adopted the law on personal status to protect the rights of women in 2022. It has also introduced data protection law to safeguard the virtual life of individuals as Saudi citizens. These and other fresh laws backfired, turning to new legal pretext to suppress and compromise the rights of various groups of society including women and activists.
A fresh annual report by Human Rights Watch detailed the human rights record of Saudi Arabia in 2023. HRW denounced the kingdom’s persistence in issuing death penalty for citizens under various convictions ranging from security allegations to social media activity and drug dealing. The report, published under 10 headings, refers to the failure of reforms in Saudi legal apparatus asserting that Riyadh utilized financial resources in the Public Investment Fund to launder its abuses of migrants, workers, women, and activists. Saudi Arabia exerts influence to whitewash its ongoing human rights violations through employing renowned figures in sports clubs, tourism sponsorship, and business investment.
Saudi Arabia in 2023
Saudi Arabian Public Investment Fund, with over $700 billion in assets has been one of the main pillars of Saudi development project and the realization of its Vision 2030. Bizarre enough, the Human Rights Watch believes that the PIF, directly overseen by the crown prince, had a significant role in abusing the people’s rights. The report makes the example of the 2017 anti-corruption crackdown and the ensuing arbitrary detentions and illegal conducts confiscating the power and assets of businessmen and members of the royal family. The PIF, one of the biggest national funds in the world, has also been one of the cloudiest ones if its kind, letting no oversight. The Fund has endowed Mohammad bin Salman with unprecedented economic and financial power, justifying its unusual expansion during the past few years.
A major part disputes on Saudi Arabia last year revolved around its conduct on migrants in its borderline with Yemen. Saudi Arabia has killed hundreds of Ethiopian migrants during their attempt to cross the Saudi border in a three-month span ending in June 2023. Saudi gourds utilized explosives and targeted the victims at close range, representing the depth of violence, potentially a crime against humanity, adopted against these migrants. That is while the Kingdom enjoys the presence of over 13.4 million migrants, comprising 41% of its current populations, as workers to facilitate the implementations of its grand projects and expanding economy. These workers are still employed under the abusive terms of the kafala systems, despite the Saudi vows to consider amendments.
The Watch report on Saudi Arabia opens with kingdom’s one-year record on personal freedoms. Saudi Arabian leaders and authorities harshly penalize their critics and supporters of social and political reforms. Social media activists and media campaigners faced long terms in prisons or execution. In a renowned case, a retired teacher named Muhammad al-Ghamdi faced terrorism allegations at the court providing his activity on social media as evidence. Al-Ghamdi is expecting execution in prison.
The report also notes the al-Rabea family who have faced harsh administrative punishments due to what is deemed as “peaceful expression or activism.” Mohammed, the most recent victim, has been recently extradited to Saudi Arabia and concerns about a similar fate to his cousins, who’ve been executed in 2019, and brother, who is expecting execution, is growing among the rights activists. Execution has been a major concern in Saudi Arabia as convicts on a diverse range of criminal cases, including drug crimes and social activism, have faced the penalty. The death penalty has been an outdated practice worldwide that is deemed acceptable only in special cases of criminal activities. Besides, unfair trials and vague documentation of the verdicts have left multiple questions about the judicial system of Saudi Arabia unanswered.
The Saudi justice system is filled with vacant spots over various issues leaving the space for judges to make decisions based on personal insights or religious tenets. On crimes related to sexual orientations, including the LGBTQ groups and adultery, there is no codified law and the verdicts are based on Islamic law or the vague cybercrime law (if detected online) which criminalizes personal and private relationships on societal morals, religious codes, and even public order.
Riyadh keeps compromising the rights of women despite introducing reforms to its abusive laws against the female society. The male guardianship continues to restrict the women’s freedom while facilitating the chances of “domestic violence and sexual abuse in marriage”. The law on personal status has been introduced and adopted with no female or rights activist being included in the codification process. Father is the main guardian with mother having no legal rights over the future and well-being of the child. The wife, by the way, has to fight for her own rights to move, leave the country, or work outside.
Technology rights in Saudi Arabia has also been compromised based on various justifications. The kingdom infiltrates the social media platforms using various tools and techniques to identify and suppress its critics, criminalize the dissidents, and restrict the freedom of expression. The new data protection law was expected to serve the citizens and their technology rights, while it has actually given the authority to administrative agents to get access to personal data and disclose them to the state. The government agents can utilize the “security reasons” justification, with no codified or defined law, to phish the citizens and employ the data against the prey at any time in the future.
Mohammad Bin Salman has been somewhat successful in representing a new face of Saudi Arabia to the world in a few years. The country, however, seems to be building the new design in a glass house that could be broken from the within and the without. Locally, the eruption of public wrath may prove devastating considering the criticality of stability and peace to the investors, managers, and stockholders.
On a larger scale, any abuse or violation may trigger a worldwide denigration of the face of Saudi regime, like what happened on Khashoggi assassination. Saudi Arabia is treading on the edge of a cliff which leads to the heaven of futurist aspirations, but any slip might lead the nation into the infernal region of dereliction.