Saudi Arabia has people as well as oil, remember?

As the financial markets fret increasingly about the impact of Middle East protests on Saudi Arabia and the knock-on effects on oil supply and western diplomacy in the region, it’s important to remember that the country has people as well as oil and strategic importance, and that those people have the same rights as the rest of us.

Reports today that the Saudi authorities have ‘banned’ protests hardly come as a surprise – freedom of expression has been severely curtailed in the kingdom for years.

In 2008, following a protest against Israel’s military action in Gaza, the Ministry of Interior reportedly said that protests in Saudi Arabia were banned.

Yet as calls have recently grown louder for reform, a constitutional monarchy and greater political freedoms, and for the release of people detained without charge or trial, the authorities seem to have felt the need to reiterate their repressive policy.

For years we’ve been highlighting the appalling human rights abuses committed by the security forces under the control of Saudi’s Ministry of Interior. Critics of the government are often held incommunicado without charge, sometimes in solitary confinement, prevented from consulting lawyers and denied access to the courts to challenge the lawfulness of their detention.

Torture is frequently used to extract confessions from detainees, to punish them for refusing to “repent”, or to force them to make undertakings not to criticise the government. Incommunicado detention in Saudi Arabia often lasts until a confession is obtained, which can take months and occasionally years.

I remember meeting a British man, Les Walker, who was wrongly detained by the Saudi authorities. He and several others were wrongly accused of involvement in a car bombing and tortured – including having the soles of his feet beaten with an axe handle.

And if you thought the Egypt and Libya situations showed years of UK and other western foreign policy in a bad light, you ain’t seen nothing yet. Despite the shocking abuse meted out to its citizens, Saudi Arabia is the west’s number one ally in the Middle East. What’s more, they’ve racked up enough points on their ‘UK arms industry loyalty card’ to buy Tunisia outright. If the Saudi authorities were to turn their formidable arsenal on their own people, you would see a whole showcase of UK-manufactured and brokered equipment.

At Amnesty we’re calling on the Saudi authorities to allow peaceful protests to take place. It would make interesting viewing if western diplomats had to justify years and years of arms sales to Saudi’s serial human rights abusers, but I hope that wide-scale abuses of civilians on the streets of Riyadh won’t be the thing that prompts it.

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Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
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