Saudi Arabia — Question for Short Debate
Lord Ahmed (Labour)
My Lords, I would like to thank everyone taking part in this debate. I very much look forward to hearing the contribution of the Opposition Front Bench, as well as the Minister's response.
I have great love and respect for the 27 million citizens of Saudi Arabia, as well as the holy places in both Mecca and Medina. For this reason, I believe that it is imperative to speak out against the oppressive, dictatorial and brutal practices exercised by the regime, which interprets its tribal Bedouin culture into religious doctrine in a way which is, in my view, quite contrary to the Sharia and to the practices of Islam.
Over 1,400 years ago, the Prophet Mohammed-Peace be upon Him-worked for a noble lady called Khadijah, who was an entrepreneur as well as a respected businesswoman in Mecca. His daughter Fatima and his wife Ayesha-Peace and Blessings be upon Them-both practised fully in life with men at work, at war, in the community and in business. They expressed their views and opinions, even sometimes against the khalifas-the rulers, who were companions of the Prophet-without fear of being prosecuted or locked up.
Today, women are not allowed to drive or vote; women remain subject to discrimination both in law and practice; women are not allowed to travel, engage in paid work, participate in higher education, or marry without the permission of a male guardian. I am sure that the Saudi authorities will say that women will be gaining their right to vote, even though there is no democracy or freedom in the country. The consultative Shura Council is still fully appointed by the king. Women "gaining the right to vote" will merely join their male counterparts in being able to elect only half of the local municipal seats-the other half of which are also appointed by the king. Women still do not have the same rights as men.
Some 1,400 years ago, the Prophet Mohammed-Peace be upon Him-said that no Arab is better than a non-Arab, and vice versa. Yet, in modern Saudi Arabia, the practices of pre-Islam are rampant, with white Europeans and Americans treated in a superior manner to Asian and African workers doing the same job. They justify this by stating that people are paid in accordance with the national salaries in the place of their origin. Asian and African people are treated with pathetically low wages, and are held in overcrowded accommodation with few or no basic facilities. Even the hard-working cleaners of the holy places are paid less than £100 per month in the most oil-rich country of the world.
Islam never practised sheikhdoms and kingdoms, the culture of the current Arab countries. Islam was based on democratic elections for candidates with the ability to perform and who had in mind the best interests of society. Even khalifas like Omer, Usman and Ali were elected by the consensus of the people.
According to the latest Amnesty International report, since March 2011, the Saudi Arabian authorities have launched a new wave of repression in the name of security. They have cracked down on demonstrations, protests against human rights violations and calls for reform. The number of people arrested is reported to be between 10,000 and 30,000. According to the Islamic Human Rights Commission, there are more political prisoners in Saudi Arabia today than there were in the USSR at its height. The actions of the Saudi authorities are a cause of concern for us all as they breach basic human rights. Thousands of people have been detained over the past decades on security grounds, many of them held for years without charge or trial, or tried and sentenced in secret with no means of challenging their detention. Some 63 years after the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and 1,400 years after the last sermon of the Prophet Mohammed-Peace be upon Him-guaranteeing rights for men, women, children, minorities and the weak, it shocks me that thousands of political prisoners are being held in Saudi Arabia without being charged or convicted.
One of those prisoners is an Islamic scholar who has been detained because he criticised the Ministry of the Interior for its handling of detainees. According to Human Rights Watch, Dr Yusuf bin Abdullah al-Ahmad was detained without charge the day after he published his criticism, apparently as a direct result of his internet post. The Islamic teacher, who is a Sunni and teaches at Imam Muhammad bin Saud University in Riyadh, also criticised the arrest of women who went to the ministry on
There are many illegal imprisonments, including those of British citizens such as Abdul Hakim Gilani, who was recently released from prison due to the campaign run by Al Karama, a human rights organisation, after six years of terrible ordeal due to his political beliefs. Political prisoners include human rights activists, lawyers, members of political parties, religious scholars, bloggers and individual protesters. I can list many names which are all available on the internet and have been circulated by human rights organisations to expose the reign of terror in Saudi Arabia. Since 2001, abusive counter-terrorism methods have been used against political opponents of the regime and anyone expressing concerns in relation to their right to be able to express freely and without fear of prosecution their right to vote and to live in accordance with their traditions.
Noble Lords may be aware that Amnesty International has expressed deep concern in relation to a new anti-terror law which has been formulated. It will be used to silence discontent in the kingdom. For example, it will be a terrorist crime if you are said to have harmed the reputation of the state or its position. "Questioning the integrity of the king or the crown prince" will be punishable by a minimum of 10 years' imprisonment, while holding a placard could result in a three-year sentence. Already people are tried and held in secret; people are sent to prison for "re-education" or "positive brainwashing". Torture and other ill-treatment remains rife, and confessions are forced out of detainees using beatings, electric shocks and other forms of torture.
I am fully aware that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has more oil than any other country and that we depend on oil. I am fully aware of Saudi Arabia's financial and political influence in the west and I have occasionally been told by colleagues about our interests, but in my view the principle of defending human rights is and will remain at the very highest level, and higher than any other issue. The Saudi authorities claim that they are now the "Arab moderate camp" and should be supported by the west without much reform or change to their way of governance, just because they claim that they provide consistency and security in the region. But we have supported the Tunisian people, and rightly so. We have just spent over $200 million as well as killing thousands of people in Libya to get rid of the tyrant Muammar Gaddafi. We have supported the people of Egypt even though Hosni Mubarak was a safer bet. We are supporting the people of Syria because of the oppressive tactics of Bashar Al Assad. We must not stay silent in the face of abuses of human rights and lack of political rights in Saudi Arabia by the Al-Saud family. Britain along with other countries should stand up and support the human rights and equality movements which are our basic principles. Our values of defending civil, political, social and economic rights should be universal and one.
Finally, I would like to ask the Minister: how many British citizens are held in the kingdom of Saudi Arabia and what representation Her Majesty's Government have made to the Saudi authorities regarding this matter. Would he be prepared to support the isolation of those countries which use torture with impunity? Will Her Majesty's Government support the following requests from Amnesty International, which I support: immediately release all prisoners of conscience, such as those held solely for the peaceful exercise of their rights to freedom of opinion, expression, peaceful assembly or association; end all arbitrary arrests and detentions; provide prompt and public trials meeting international standards of fairness without recourse to the death penalty for all detainees charged or held, including on suspicion of terrorism-related offences, or else release them; investigate thoroughly and independently all allegations of torture and other ill-treatment and bring those found responsible to justice?
It is important that we ask for considerable amendment to the draft penal law for terrorism crimes and the financing of terrorism and bring all of Saudi Arabia's terrorism-related laws and practices into line with international human rights law and standards. I believe that we have a duty to uphold international law regardless of the perpetrators and their influences on western society. The people of the Middle East will say that Britain operates a double standard in relation to human rights if we remain silent over our friend's actions. I believe that Saudi Arabia has an important role to play in the Muslim world and that if we fail to encourage wide-ranging reforms and respect for international norms, we will be failing in our long-term duty to create a peaceful world.