Saudi Arabia: just the country for Jeremy Clarkson?

Unison’s Assistant Secretary General Karen Jennings has responded to Jeremy Clarkson’s idiotic remarks about “executing” striking public sector workers “in front of their families” by saying that this is “almost like Gaddafi”.

I get the point. This kind of savage reaction is the sort of thing you might – might – see in very repressive countries. The one that springs to my mind is Saudi Arabia, about which there’s a new report from Amnesty today.

In Saudi Arabia, of course, trades unions aren’t even allowed to exist. If nurses or care workers or teachers or street cleaners there ever contemplated a strike, they’d very quickly find themselves in prison. Whether you agree or disagree with yesterday’s public sector strikes, you can at least see them as an important and indeed necessary right within any fully-functioning democracy. So across Britain yesterday we saw lively marches – complete with vuvezelas (I like these personally) and some excellent banners (“Careful now”, advises Dougal from Father Ted in one good one in today’s Guardian) – of a kind totally unimaginable in Jeddah or Riyadh.

The Saudi authorities sometimes like to insist that their 27-million-strong nation is quiescent, content with its laws, its relative wealth and its own “cultural values”. This is not the case. As the Amnesty report shows, this year in particular has seen a significant “Arab Spring”-like upsurge in protests in the Kingdom. They haven’t been met with public executions (though these do of course take place in Saudi Arabia), but they’ve been cracked down on very hard by the authorities.

Hundreds of people have been arrested for demonstrating – having defied a permanent national ban on protests. People have been pressured into signing pledges not to protest again, they’ve been placed under travel bans, and some have been kept in prison for months without charge. Even people who’ve spoken in support of protests or reform have been arrested. For example a Shia cleric called Sheikh Tawfiq Jaber Ibrahim al-‘Amr has been arrested for calling for reform at a mosque – he’s been charged with the memorably vague offence of “inciting public opinion”.

In some cases it’s been more severe. Just over a week ago (22 November), 16 men, including nine prominent reformists, were jailed for between five and 30 years after being convicted of offences including forming a secret organisation, attempting to seize power, incitement against the King, financing terrorism and money laundering. Their trial seems to have been totally unfair (they were actually blindfolded and handcuffed for eight straight hours during one trial session) and several have alleged they were tortured in custody by a notorious group of black-clothed and masked sadists called the “special unit”.

Saudi Arabia’s actually managed to keep a pretty low profile during the Arab Spring this year, only really coming to wide public attention with the Women2Drive protests in the summer. These haven’t gone away (in fact one woman, Shaima Jastaniya still faces ten lashes for having defied it) and the spoof “public information” film at the top of this post from Amnesty TV nicely shows how few rights women actually have in the country.

Our film is called “How not to get punished for being a woman”, but you could equally make one called “How not get punished for being a reformer/protestor/striker” about Saudi Arabia.

By the way, I wonder what that famously calm and reasonable petrol-head Jeremy Clarkson thinks about the Saudi women driving ban? Women drivers, eh?

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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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