A Royal approach to human rights
As Prince Charles visits Saudi Arabia and Qatar this week I hope he's under no illusion that outside of the palatial royal residences of Riyadh and Doha there are serious human rights abuses being perpetrated.
This is the Prince’s second visit to the region within a year, perhaps demonstrating how keen the UK government are to develop their economic ties with the Gulf States. According to the UK government, Saudi Arabia is the UK’s largest trading partner in the Middle East. The UK is Saudi Arabia's second largest foreign investor after the USA, and the UK government have designated it a ‘High Growth Market’.
Maybe I’m being cynical, but I suspect the Prince has not been pressed by No10 to raise awkward human right issues with his Royal hosts.
However, if he were, there would be quite a list of issues to raise.
Saudi Arabia has one of the highest rates of execution in the world, applying it for a wide range of crimes, including drug offences, apostasy, “sorcery” and “witchcraft”. Last year Amnesty recorded the deaths of 70 people up to November, though the true figure may have been significantly higher.
He could also ask questions about a new law introduced earlier this month. The “Law for the Crimes of Terrorism and its Financing” has an extremely vague definition of terrorist crimes which in Amnesty's view is likely to lead to the prosecution of almost any peaceful human rights activism, with “offenders” liable to face long prison terms or even death sentences.
One thing the Prince needn’t worry about is the visit being disrupted by protests. These are banned in Saudi Arabia and criticism of the state is not tolerated.
Last year, a website founder called Raif Badawi was jailed for seven years and sentenced to be flogged a staggering 600 times after he was convicted for criticising the authorities and for setting up a website where others posted criticism. He was also convicted for insulting religious symbols in his tweets and Facebook updates, where he criticised the country’s “religious police”.
The Duchess of Cornwall who is accompanying the Prince, may be interested in Saudi Arabia’s approach to women’s rights. Women face severe discrimination both in law and in practice. They must obtain the permission of a male guardian before they can travel, take paid work, engage in higher education or marry, and their evidence carries less weight in a court of law than that of men. This is why Amnesty can only say that “we believe” domestic violence is rife – it’s seldom reported as the system is heavily stacked against women seeking justice.
And of course, it’s the only country in the world in which women are not allowed to drive. Although there’s no official law banning women drivers, a ministerial decree in 1990 formalised an existing customary ban and women who attempt to drive face arrests. In recent years, anti-driving ban activists - notably young women driving cars in symbolic protests - have been harassed, arrested and forced to sign pledges to end their campaigning.
I could go on and highlight issues such as torture, forced “confessions” and unfair trials, but – emulating the Royal couples onward travel plans - let’s move on to Qatar.
Qatar is perhaps considered a progressive force in the Gulf. It is home to Al Jazeera, is positioning itself as a global centre of art and culture and plays host to some of the most prestigious horse races in the international calendar. However, there is a darker and more sinister side to this would-be desert paradise.
Its successful bid to host the 2022 World Cup is yet another opportunity Qatar to boost its global profile. The UK government was quick to promote business opportunities for UK companies in Qatar around the 2022 World Cup and the Prince may wish to discuss the country’s progress in constructing the World Cup stadia. However, I suspect his hosts will be keen to avoid any mention of the appalling conditions in which many migrant workers have to toil away.
Qatar’s construction sector is rife with abuse and serious exploitation. Amnesty’s report, The Dark Side of Migration: Spotlight on Qatar’s construction sector ahead of the World Cup - documents a range of abuses against migrant workers, including non-payment of wages, harsh and dangerous working conditions, and shocking standards of accommodation. Amnesty is calling on FIFA to work with the Qatari authorities and the World Cup organisers as a matter of priority to take measures to prevent these abuses.
The UK government puts a lot of energy into pursuing “commercial diplomacy” with countries in the Gulf and Prince Charles is perhaps the UK’s leading Ambassador, deployed when relations need to be developed and consolidated.
We wish Prince Charles a safe trip and hope that his diplomacy skills will be put to use not just in the pursuit of commercial interests, but also to raise human rights.
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.