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Theresa May and Boris Johnson should deliver tough messages during Bin Salman visit

The Saudi crown prince is far from the great reformer that he claims to be and that his admirers suggest he is

Published in: Middle East Eye

On Wednesday, the British government will roll out the red carpet for Saudi's crown prince and de facto leader, Mohammed Bin Salman. If you listen to Britain's Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson – who has called the prince, dubbed "MBS", "a remarkable young man" – you'd think that the prince is promoting reform in Saudi Arabia and peace in neighbouring Yemen.

He is doing neither. 

Repression and violations

Despite MBS' ambitious reform rhetoric and his stated desire to transform the country economically and politically, repression and human rights violations have increased in the kingdom under his leadership. 

The most brazen violation was the mass arrest of dissident clerics and intellectuals in September and the detention in November of 381 individuals, including princes, current and former government officials, and prominent businessman, some of whom were held in a five-star hotel in Riyadh until they could cut financial or political deals to secure their release.

Some 56 individuals who refused to settle financially have now been transferred to regular prisons, where they may face criminal charges and an uncertain fate. While MBS publicly justified the November arrests in the name of anti-corruption, the arrests lacked transparency and any kind of due process.

Under the crown prince, there has also been no let-up in the Saudi crackdown on dissent and opposition. In August, an appeals court upheld an eight-year sentence against human rights activist Abdulaziz al-Shubaily after he called for peaceful reform.

Meanwhile, the prominent blogger Raif Badawi continues to serve his monstrous 10-year sentence since 2014. Prominent activists Essam Koshak and Issa al-Nukhaifi were sentenced to long prison terms on 27 February.

The British Foreign Office, which says that championing human rights defenders is a priority, has been strangely muted about these cruel, ongoing incarcerations.  

If there is one area in particular where MBS's public statements have raised expectations, it is women's rights. Saudi's ban on women driving is expected to be lifted in June, a welcome development and a tribute to the tireless campaigning and courage of Saudi women activists.

Systematic discrimination

MBS may have helped to secure this change. But meaningful proposals to end Saudi Arabia's long-term discrimination against women are scant. A specific goal of his much-heralded economic transformation plan, Vision 2030, is to increase women's participation in the workforce from 22 to 30 percent.

But this plan ignores the systematic discrimination that is the Saudi male guardianship system, which will likely make this economic plan unachievable. Under the guardianship system, Saudi women are treated as legal minors and need the permission of a male relative to study abroad, marry, or get a passport.

This extraordinarily discriminatory system is still firmly in place, and MBS appears to have no plans to scrap it. 

As defence minister since 2015, MBS has also played a leading and decisive role in the Saudi-led coalition's war in Yemen, which has cost nearly 6,000 civilian lives, wounded nearly 10,000 more, inflicted unimaginable suffering on ordinary Yemenis, and exacerbated a humanitarian disaster that the United Nations describes as the world's worst.  

Yet Saudi Arabia, to whom Britain has sold more than £4.6bn worth of arms and military equipment since the start of the war, has repeatedly blocked critical supplies - like food, medicine and fuel needed for hospital generators - from reaching Yemen, putting more lives at risk.

A tough message

Britain's international development secretary, Penny Mordaunt, has rightly pointed out that using starvation as a method of war violates international law.

Theresa May and Boris Johnson should make this unambiguously clear to their new best friend, the crown prince, and demand an immediate end to restrictions of humanitarian and commercial supplies by all sides to the Yemen conflict.

But if Britain is really serious about helping the Yemeni people, it will need to recast its relationship with the Saudis more fundamentally.

Britain should not continue to arm the Saudis when those weapons could be used to attack schools, hospitals, markets and mosques in Yemen, and when the Saudi-led coalition has already conducted scores of strikes that have violated the laws of war, many likely war crimes.

Human Rights Watch has documented 87 such attacks – Amnesty International, the UN and others have documented more. 

Moreover, none of these strikes have been properly investigated and no-one has been held to account for the crimes committed. Until they are, Britain continues to risk complicity in future war crimes. 

Mohammed Bin Salman is far from the great reformer that he claims to be and that his admirers suggest he is. Theresa May and Boris Johnson should therefore deliver tough messages to the crown prince this week.

Just as importantly, they should abandon ill-conceived British policies that only serve to worsen the Yemen conflict and downplay egregious human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia.  

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