The G20 and Human Rights in Saudi Arabia: how much progress has been made?
Illustration by Paulina Maziarska

A lot was riding on November’s G20 summit. Saudi Arabia’s reputation in the eyes of the world in fact. At least that’s what it felt like for Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (often referred to as MBS) when he announced back in December 2019 that Riyadh was next to host the annual forum. The kingdom’s image has been tarnished by human rights violations, and the G20 summit was MBS’s effort to cast Saudi Arabia in a different light – as a moderate, progressive country and a valued player within the international community.

The summit itself was dominated by discussions over global cooperation to confront COVID-19, climate change action and arranging debt relief for the poorest countries. But the hype did not match up to the reality. For one, while a general pledge was made for a fair global distribution of vaccines, no firm commitments – like specific new funding for such distribution plans – arose from the occasion. Crucially as well, the pandemic meant that the summit was held virtually, which deprived MBS of the chance to roll out the red carpet and showcase the kingdom’s reforms.

Yet for human rights groups and activists, how the summit was held did not matter either way. Many groups urged Western governments to boycott the summit entirely, but to no avail. Groups such as Amnesty International questioned how themes like female empowerment could be put on the agenda, considering the kingdom’s detention and alleged torture of women’s rights activists like Loujain al-Hathloul, Nassima al-Sada, Samar Badawi, Nouf Abdulaziz and Maya’a al-Zahrani.

The UK-based Arab Organisation for Human Rights (AOHR), along with the families of three women’s rights activists, published full-page adverts in high-profile international newspapers including the Washington Post, the Guardian, LA Times, Germany’s Sueddeutsche Zeitung and Canada’s Star, highlighting the kingdom’s track record on executions, extrajudicial killings and the detention of women’s rights activists and journalists.

“This summit gives the green light to the brutal Saudi regime to continue in its daily business of suppressing opponents who dislike its agenda”, the group said in a corresponding statement. Their criticism was only hardened by the fact that this year’s summit marked Saudi Arabia as the first country in the Arab world to host the G20.

Saudi Arabia is changing

The Saudi government has been at pains to emphasise the progress that the kingdom has made since the announcement of Vision 2030 in 2016 – MBS’s strategic vision for Saudi’s Arabia’s future. It’s an ambitious vision that seeks to diversify the Saudi economy away from oil dependence and create a vibrant, more open society.

To that end, the government has expanded entertainment possibilities, including ending a 35-year ban on cinemas and permitting music concerts. In June 2018, a royal decree lifted a long-standing ban on women driving. A year later the government reformed the guardianship system – a mixture of laws and customs restricting women from doing certain everyday activities without the permission of male guardians (normally a father or husband). Amongst other changes, women can now obtain passports, travel and work without requiring a male guardian’s permission.

The kingdom has also implemented more political reforms this year, no doubt further encouraged by preparations for the G20 presidency. In April, King Salman (MBS’s father) issued a royal decree ordering an end to the death penalty for crimes committed by minors. Speaking at the time about this change, the president of the Saudi government’s Human Rights Commission, Awwad Alawwad, said that “the decree helps us in establishing a more modern penal code, and demonstrates the kingdom’s commitment to following through on key reforms”. In that same month, Riyadh also banned public floggings as a form of punishment.

Issues remain

But these reforms have been closely followed by a crackdown on political dissent and activism. Shortly before the driving ban on women was lifted, the government detained those women who had campaigned for an end to the ban. At the time, activists also received phone calls from the authorities warning them not to speak to journalists or comment about the lifting of the ban on social media.

It seemed like the government had given reforms with one hand, and taken away political freedoms with the other. Yet ultimately the message was clear – where progress has taken place, it has come from the top and therefore any credit for such progress has to be directed there too.

One of the women detained back in May 2018 was the prominent women’s rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul. She has been imprisoned ever since, on charges of conspiring with hostile foreign organisations. Her sister, Lina al-Hathloul, has repeatedly called for her release and says that Loujain has been tortured in prison and denied phone calls or visits from family. In October, Loujain went on a nearly month-long hunger strike in protest over the conditions of her detention, including not being allowed regular contact with her family. Last week her case was moved to a terrorism court, one which human rights groups say has been used to prosecute peaceful dissidents and is notorious for violations of fair trial standards.

Another case that has left a seemingly indelible stain on the kingdom’s human rights record was the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. Khashoggi was murdered and later dismembered by a hit squad of Saudi agents inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018. After an opaque trial in December 2019, eight men were sentenced although the trial was widely condemned for failing to hold the masterminds of the killing to account.

Then there is the war in Yemen. In March 2015 a Saudi-led coalition launched an aerial campaign against Shiite Houthi rebels in an effort to reinstate the internationally recognised government of Yemeni President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi. A war which Saudi officials thought would be over in two weeks has since created what the UN calls “the world’s worst humanitarian crisis”, with both sides accused of potential war crimes. According to the independently funded Yemen Data Project, nearly a third of all airstrikes carried out by the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen have hit civilian targets including schools, hospitals and food stores. The project found that over 18,500 civilians have been killed or injured as a result of coalition airstrikes since 2015.

Citing these and other issues, international human rights organisations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, have argued that the government’s reforms are surface-level changes designed to whitewash rights violations. For these groups, the reforms do not go far enough and deeper changes to the judicial system and the dynamics of Saudi society are required.

With President-elect Joe Biden set to enter the White House in January, now is a critical time for Saudi Arabia. The past four years have seen Trump effectively shield MBS from criticism and repeatedly veto congressional attempts to block arms sales to Saudi Arabia. Biden has already signalled that this near-unconditional support for Riyadh will stop. During his campaign, Biden vowed to end US support for the war in Yemen and hold the kingdom accountable for human rights violations. Biden also stated in a debate last year that he would treat Saudi Arabia “like the pariah that they are“.

Of course campaign rhetoric and policy are two very different things. Not to mention that the US-Saudi alliance is a historic one that will always be difficult to break off completely. But a tougher line from Biden may well pressure Riyadh to seek an end to the war in Yemen and loosen its stringent approach to human rights and political freedoms within the country.

Many questions remain over just how far the kingdom’s reforms will go in the next few years, and how they might be affected by a considerably different kind of US president. What is clear is that Saudi Arabia is now at a crossroads, with the rest of the world watching where it will turn.