“I believe men and women should be treated equally,” said David Cameron in 2013. “If that’s what being a feminist is, then yes I’m a feminist”.
It is ironic that Cameron uttered these words in 2013, as it was the same year in which the UK made a secret pact to elevate the most misogynistic regime in the world to the UN Human Rights Council. Saudi Arabia has an abominable record of oppressing women. The World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap Index in 2012 ranks Saudi Arabia 131 out of 135 countries.
Yet cables obtained by Wikileaks show that the UK and Saudi Arabia traded votes in order for each country to secure a position on the Human Rights council as recently as 2013.
The House of Saud’s scandalous position within the Council was again brought to the media’s attention by the recent election of Faisal bin Hassad Trad – the Saudi Ambassador to the UN – to the chair of a panel of independent experts on human rights. UN Watch executive director Hillel Neuer has likened it to “making a pyromaniac into the town fire chief”.
Others have simply shrugged their shoulders, muttering about the realities of realpolitik. But in an age of fracking, and the West’s declining dependence on Middle Eastern oil, is it not time for some principled foreign policy from our Western leaders?
Foreign policy gurus obsess over strategic relationships with Sunni versus Shia nations, but history has shown us that any attempt to export democracy to this region is profoundly futile.
Yet in the face of this futility, the secret atrocities which Saudi Arabia carries out – and which the West silently tolerate – are becoming hard to ignore.
Campaigns on Twitter and in the blogosphere have made it to the pages of mainstream media. Western leaders who claim to be progressive, compassionate or “feminist” are placed in awkward situations when the atrocities of their ally are broadcast on a weekly, almost daily basis.
In the UK, mainstream newspapers are now covering the fact that a 74 year old British grandfather, Karl Andree, is about to receive 350 lashes, a sentence which his family say might kill him. In the last month, the New York Times has reported on two more secular activists sentenced to jail, for the crime of simply questioning the Saudi judiciary system. And the now infamous secular blogger Raif Badawi is still imprisoned facing the continuation of his sentence of 1000 lashes.
Yet Saudi Arabia don’t just flog their citizens and imprison or execute political dissidents, they also sponsor a particularly brutal form of Islam – Wahhabism – that has spread throughout the globe infecting young people’s minds from Europe all the way to Sydney.
Sweden’s foreign minister, Margot Wallstrom, has set the principled precedent. Criticizing the sentence given to Raif Badawi, calling it “medieval” and “cruel”, she suffered a backlash from Swedish industrialists and Saudi officials alike. But others are starting to follow suit.
Former UK MP, and conservative media figure Louise Mensch was blocked by the Saudi Ambassador to the UK for tweeting furiously about the sentencing of Ali Mohammed Al-Nimr. And the UK has recently cancelled a deal with the Saudis for a prison contract worth $US9million.
And while he is still yet to be released from jail, the international attention paid to the case of Raif Badawi, including his human rights awards, may have contributed to his next round of lashes being postponed.
It may be too early yet to be hopeful that international media attention and online agitation has made any impact on the House of Saud’s conscience. Yet, it does seem that with every human rights abuse that is exposed, Western leaders who support the Kingdom open themselves up to charges of moral hypocrisy.
Western leaders have always had to delicately negotiate their relationship with Saudi Arabia. The difference is that now they must give much more attention to how this relationship is perceived at home. Trading votes so that the Saudis can land plum positions on the UN Human Rights Council is no longer going to cut it.