February 17, 2014

Prince Charles is keen on charity. He has personally founded 17 charities working for better education and better opportunities for British youth, responsible business, and a sustainable environment. He is also a passionate advocate of inter-faith dialogue. At a well-publicised Christmas reception, he stated that "an emphasis on love of neighbour and doing to others as we would have them do to us are the ultimate foundations of truth, justice, compassion and human rights".

These are commendable principles. Will the Prince actively promote them when he travels to Saudi Arabia and Qatar on an official visit next Monday? Or when it comes to his reported friendship with King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, ruler of Saudi Arabia and Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, the Emir of Qatar, will these values be eclipsed by efforts to advance arms deals and commercial contracts?

"The Prince of Wales's return to the region, only one year after his last visit, demonstrates the importance the British Government places on its association with key partners in the area," said Sir John Jenkins, the UK's ambassador to Saudi Arabia. Sir John went on to say that Prince Charles will advocate interfaith understanding and that he and King Abdullah share a deep concern about the "enormous turmoil and human agony in the Middle East".

But does that concern extend to the prominent Saudi human rights activists sentenced to long prison terms on account of their peaceful activism, or to Saudi women and girls subject to systematic discrimination, or to the millions of foreign workers, some of them living in conditions of forced servitude? Let's hope Their Royal Highnesses also discuss the agony of the 64 people reportedly executed in Saudi Arabia between January and November 2013, mostly by public beheading.

According to Ambassador Nick Hopton, the Qatar visit is "an opportunity to showcase the strong ties between the UK and Qatar, which we value greatly". Will the Prince also use it as an opportunity to raise the plight of migrant workers? The timing would be opportune – only this week the Government's Qatar Supreme Committee released its Workers' Welfare Standards in a credible attempt to rectify the shockingly poor conditions for migrant workers building the 2022 World Cup stadiums. Consistent with his commitment to responsible business, the Prince should suggest to the Emir that, while a good start, the new measures fall well short of the reforms that Qatar's low-paid and routinely exploited migrant workers need so badly.

And what of domestic workers in Qatar? Overwhelmingly women, these workers are subject to verbal, physical, and in some cases, sexual abuse. Some are not allowed to speak to strangers or are locked up in the homes where they work. Many do not receive any time off. In the past, Prince Charles has exerted his influence over the current Emir's father to withdraw plans to build apartments on the former site of the Chelsea Barracks, on the basis that the proposed construction was unsightly. Will he use similar influence on this rather more important issue and encourage the Emir to make Qatar the first Gulf state to ratify the ILO Domestic Workers' Convention?

Human Rights Watch has noted repeatedly that the UK government too often downplays the serious and systematic human rights abuses taking place in the Gulf states and regularly subordinates human rights concerns to trade and arms sales.

Prince Charles has an opportunity on this visit to go beyond talking in generalities about inter-faith dialogue and tolerance to the very Gulf rulers whose governments consistently repress dissent and subject women, religious minorities and migrant workers to egregious abuses. We urge him to do so and to confound his minders and advisers by speaking up for rights and justice.

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