Human Rights in Saudi Arabia — [Mr Nigel Evans in the Chair]

Part of Backbench Business – in Westminster Hall at 2:37 pm on 18th July 2019.

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Photo of John Howell John Howell Conservative, Henley 2:37 pm, 18th July 2019

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Evans, and a great pleasure to follow Mr Carmichael. I congratulate him on securing this debate.

I will concentrate on the first part of the right hon. Gentleman’s motion, human rights in Saudi Arabia. I will do so by tackling one issue in particular, that of modern slavery. We have set a significant agenda for dealing with modern slavery in this country, but I have also had experience of dealing with it overseas. In my role as a trade envoy to Nigeria, I have been there specifically to try to sort out the problems of modern slavery, and I have had successful meetings there that have gone a long way toward sorting them out. I have also mentioned before my experience there with Unilever, which has eradicated modern slavery from its entire supply chain. There is a lot that we can do, if I may use that example to talk about what we want to do on modern slavery in Saudi.

Our definition of modern slavery is a situation in which people are exploited for criminal gain. That sounds very simple, but it hides the enormous impact that it has on the human rights of the individuals who are exploited. I have a background in human rights from my membership of the Council of Europe, which I share with you, Mr Evans, and it is interesting to see the matter in that context.

Hon. Members may be aware of pictures sent around on Saudi social media of two Moroccan women who were sold as housemaids for lump sums of cash. They were described as being able to cook local meals and as loving children and so on, but they were sold for cash. Saudi human rights organisations point out that this is modern slavery, explaining that the women were severely restricted in what they were able to do and were also sexually abused. We should all bear that firmly in mind.

In Saudi Arabia, women working as housemaids, as in this situation, or simply as domestic helpers are not only from Morocco, as those two women were, but from other developing countries such as Ethiopia, India and the Philippines. Numerous cases have come to light in recent years of domestic helpers, particularly female, being treated in this way and finding themselves with great problems. A system of law in Saudi Arabia called the kafala system provides some legal structure to this, but it is a tissue of a legal structure that does not provide any substance of protection for the women there. The owners—they are classed as owners—remain responsible for the visas and residence status of the women for the duration of their stay. That system has come under huge amounts of criticism from human rights organisations, which object to the restrictive and abusive relationships that the women are put through.

Such advertisements for women have brought further attention to other cases of mistreatment of women, including other Moroccan women, in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. In one example, a Moroccan woman who married a Saudi man was raped by her husband and then imprisoned in their house after trying to report the crime. Her being released from that captivity required her to appeal directly to Morocco’s King. Those are good examples of how prevalent modern slavery is in Saudi Arabia. It is not only Moroccan women but American women as well. I am aware of American women who married Saudi nationals, live in Saudi Arabia and are subject to a situation in which other people completely rule over what they do.

Those people have all the rights that we associate with ownership. The women were forcibly abducted or kidnapped, in clear violation of the laws of other countries, and of court orders of other countries in some cases. They have been removed from those countries, far beyond the enforcement powers of the courts within those countries. They have been hidden away in family compounds for years, deprived of even a basic standard of living, including being deprived of a choice of religion, spouse or, for younger women, a choice of their age of marriage. They are denied freedom of movement and they are subjected to torture.

The stories are pitiful, and we should have tremendous sympathy for those women, but sympathy is not enough. I have explained what I have been doing in other countries. The Government can take a firm stance in raising those issues with the Governments of other countries and bringing to attention the plight of those women. It should not only be the King of Morocco who is required to do this; we should be doing it as well.

Many foreign workers in Saudi Arabia report abuse, but they are not allowed to change employer or, indeed, to leave the country without the written consent of their employer. During the year, numerous migrant workers report being laid off, sometimes after months of non-payment of salaries, and some remain stranded in Saudi Arabia without the money to move. An American study of this phenomenon revealed a lot of details, but the Saudi reaction was illustrative of the modern-day approach to dealing with a problem. They did not try to tackle the problem head-on. All they did was try to rubbish the report, which we typically see today; whether in response to antisemitism or whatever, the people who respond to reports simply choose to rubbish them and do not tend to engage. That illustrates all too well the problems that we have here.

Sadly, a number of women in this situation have been forced to work as prostitutes, even though prostitution is not officially allowed in Saudi Arabia. We should stand forcefully against any system that forces women into prostitution. We should not sit by and allow our relationship with Saudi Arabia to continue without taking up those issues and making a great point of those problems in the course of that relationship.