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United Nations

Saudi Arabia for the first time was elected as one of the fifty-three members of the U.N. Commission on Human Rights for the 2001-2003 term. On April 6, Prince Turki bin Muhammad Saud al-Kabir told the commission that "the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the other members of the Organization of the Islamic Conference are jointly seeking to promote the universality of human rights." The prince stated that the kingdom prohibited any form of torture, and that his government did "not prohibit exercise of freedom of expression and assembly provided that this is neither prejudicial to public order nor detrimental to public morals," and that all laws applied "to both sexes without distinction or exception."

Prince Turki also told the commission that the government would set up "a national governmental body, reporting directly to the Prime Minister and headed by a high-level official, vested with authority to look into all human rights issues." He added that "an independent non-governmental national body" would also be established " to help to publicize and protect human rights, to affirm the need for compliance with the regulations pertaining thereto and to advocate the punishment of offenders." He stated that "human rights sections" would be created in various government agencies, including the Ministry of Justice, the Ministry of the Interior, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Labor, "to emphasize the vital need for compliance with human rights regulations and principles," and that new regulations would be adopted to govern the legal profession and legal counseling.

The prince extended an invitation to the U.N. special rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers to study the Saudi court system. In July, the Consultative Council, an advisory body, deliberated over a new draft law for regulation of legal procedures.

On September 7 Crown Prince Abdallah signed at the U.N. the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), although it was too early to assess the practical effect on women's rights in the kingdom.

On October 25, Secretary-General Kofi Annan announced the appointment of Thoraya Ahmed Obeid, a Saudi woman who has served in U.N. posts since 1975, as executive director of the U.N. Population Fund. "Today, all the Saudi women are recognizing that you broke the ceiling one more time for Saudi women, and we thank you for that," she told Annan. She also was quoted as saying: "Once you talk about human rights, you talk about women, you talk about freedom. It is a process the country is going through," adding that she hoped it would "impact on my sisters in Saudi Arabia and make a difference in our lives."

European Union

The European Commission continued to negotiate with the Gulf Cooperation Council (of which Saudi Arabia is the leading member) for a free trade agreement. The Joint Communique of the E.U.-GCC Ministerial Meeting issued November 2, 1999, said that "The GCC Ministers, while noting the diversity of systems of values, which should be taken fully into consideration, joined the E.U. in reiterating their continuing commitment to the promotion and protection of human rights." European countries, along with the U.S. and Japan, have called for Saudi admission to the World Trade Organization.

According to the Saudi government, Western-based multinational oil companies were committed to investing some U.S. $100 billion in the kingdom's natural gas and petrochemical sectors over the next two decades. In July, it was revealed that twelve corporations had been shortlisted to prepare detailed project proposals, including four based in Europe: Royal Dutch/Shell Group, BP Amoco, ENI, and Total Fina Elf.

United Kingdom

Noting that in 1999 Saudi Arabia was the nineteenth largest export market in the world, the British government reported that the kingdom was its largest market in the Middle East, with exports of £1.5 billion. The United Kingdom maintained a hefty arms trade with Saudi Arabia, although exports declined in 1999 to £131 million sterling from £803 million in 1998.

Foreign office minister of state Peter Hain noted in a speech on June 20 at the Investing in Saudi Arabia conference in London that Britain was the second largest investor in Saudi Arabia with investments totalling U.S. $3.5 billion. He noted that some 30,000 Britons resided in the country, and there were more than ninety joint ventures between British and Saudi companies. He reported that top British corporations in Saudi included GlaxoWellcome, Shell, Rolls-Royce, BAE Systems, Tate & Lyle, and Unilever.

Hain added: "Saudi Arabia is important. We all know why. It remains the economic powerhouse of the region. Saudi Arabia is one of the few countries that can still dictate business on its own terms, sometimes against all the odds of the economics textbooks. Who else could have the international banks lending so readily? Who else could have the international oil companies queuing-up to invest billions of dollars?"

United States

U.S. Defense Secretary William Cohen was asked at an April 9 joint press briefing in Jeddah with his Saudi counterpart Prince Sultan bin Abdulaziz al-Saud to discuss areas of disagreement between the United States and Saudi Arabia. "That's a very easy answer," he replied. "There are no points of disagreement between his Royal Highness and myself or between the kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the United States."

Saudi Arabia was the largest market in the region for American products, and the U.S. once again was Saudi Arabia's number one trading partner, with military and civilian exports of U.S. $7.9 billion in 1999, according to an April 2000 report of the U.S. embassy in Riyadh. The kingdom was among the world's top ten military spenders, the State Department said in its August 2000 report, World Military Expenditures and Arms Transfers 1998, and the number one recipient of U.S. arms exports in the period 1995-1997, with $13.7 billion in sales.

About 4,000 U.S. troops were stationed at Prince Sultan air base. Ministerof Defense Prince Sultan said on April 9 that rumors of a reduction of U.S. forces in Saudi Arabia were "not correct." He visited Washington, D.C., on November 1-4, 1999 at the invitation of Secretary of Defense Cohen, and had meetings with President Clinton, Secretary of State Albright, Secretary Cohen and other senior officials. The State Department issued a joint statement on November 5, saying that topics of discussion included "the close cooperation of the two governments, particularly military and economic cooperation," and that the two countries "agreed that continuing high-level military contact and joint military training enhance[d] preparedness help[ed] sustain security and peace in the Middle East and throughout the world." On July 20, the Defense Department announced a proposed $475 million military sale to Saudi Arabia for 500 AIM-120C Advanced Medium Range Air to Air Missiles and other logistical and program support.

At a press conference in Riyadh on February 26, U.S. Energy Secretary Bill Richardson termed Saudi Arabia "a good friend and strong ally" of the U.S., and noted that ties were cemented by "a strong trade relationship, a significant investment relationship, a valued strategic partnership and a long-standing energy relationship." He also said that the U.S. welcomed the kingdom's decision to "revise the foreign capital investment law to make it more attractive for foreign investors to do business in Saudi Arabia," and that U.S. companies were "very pleased with the prospect of participation in the gas upstream sector and other potential foreign investment opportunities."

Saudi officials stressed the importance of U.S. support for the kingdom's entry into the World Trade Organization (WTO). At a banquet on September 5 in New York hosted by the Saudi-American Business Council, Crown Prince Abdullah said: "We expect that official U.S. agencies and the U.S. business community will support our efforts to complete the procedures to win WTO membership." The U.S. embassy in Riyadh noted in an April report that accession to the WTO was "the keystone of Saudi Arabia's economic reform program." It was reported in September that Crown Prince Abdullah would be meeting in New York with representatives of the eight U.S.-based oil companies selected in August to further pursue energy development projects in Saudi Arabia: Chevron, Conoco, ExxonMobil, Marathon, Phillips, Texaco, Enron, and Occidental.

The State Department once again issued a critical written assessment of Saudi Arabia's human rights practices in its annual country report, issued in February, but Clinton administration officials once again did not raise rights issues publicly. In a scathing indictment of the kingdom's practices, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom wrote to Secretary of State Albright recommending that Saudi Arabia be added to the list of "countries of particular concern," pursuant to the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act, for "particularly severe violations of religious freedom." The commission stated that "the government brazenly denies religious freedom and vigorously enforces its prohibition against all forms of public religious expression other than that of Wahabi Muslims. Numerous Christians and Shi'a Muslims continue to be detained, imprisoned and deported."

Human Rights Watch World Report 2000

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