Since the brutal murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi state agents two years ago, Saudi Arabia has significantly ramped up its efforts to divert public attention from its dismal human rights record. In its latest attempt, Saudi Arabia will host the G20 Leaders’ Summit later this week, bringing together (albeit virtually) world leaders from the European Union and 19 countries including Canada.
While the summit is ostensibly centered around international economic cooperation, it is also a blatant attempt by Saudi Arabia at “image laundering.” It is critical for Canada and other like-minded countries not to sheepishly go along with this ploy. The fact is that Saudi Arabia is a systematic and pervasive human rights violator. If there are no real consequences for Saudi repression on the world stage, the abuses are likely to continue unabated.
If states fail to speak out forcefully about Saudi crimes ahead of the Summit or simply relegate human rights discussions to a behind-closed-doors meeting, the G20 will be a PR win for Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman. It will bolster the Saudi government’s multi-million-dollar publicity efforts to create a veneer of “reform” despite its dramatic increase in repression and near-total denial of civil and political rights.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is particularly well-placed to be a strong voice at the G20 to challenge Saudi Arabia over its staggering rights abuses. The Canadian government has championed a rule-based international order that is directly undermined by bin Salman’s relentless assault on these norms at home and abroad.
These abuses have come to Ottawa’s doorstep again and again. In recent years, credible allegations have surfaced that Saudi authorities have targeted family members of prominent Saudi exiles in Canada, including Canadian permanent residents.
In 2018, Saudi Arabia reportedly used surveillance technologies to hack into the online accounts of a Saudi government critic living in Canada. Citizen Lab, the University of Toronto-based technical research group, concluded with “high confidence” that the mobile phone of the dissident, Omar Abdulaziz, was infected with spyware linked to the Saudi government and security services. Saudi authorities also allegedly detained two of his brothers that year in an apparent effort to silence his online activism.
A former Saudi intelligence official, Saad Al-Jabari, filed a lawsuit in the United States in August alleging that bin Salman sent a hit squad to assassinate him in Canada, where he’s been in exile since 2017. According to the complaint, the crown prince “orchestrated and directed the failed mission to kill Dr. Saad, which bore striking resemblance to the tactics and personnel they had deployed against Khashoggi 13 days earlier.” Earlier this year, Saudi security forces detained two of Al-Jabari’s adult children and his brother in a likely attempt to coerce him back to Saudi Arabia.
Within days of the G20 Leaders’ Summit, Canada hosted a global conference on media freedom. Saudi Arabia has a long and egregious history of suppressing free expression. A repressive 2007 Anti-Cybercrime Law criminalizes all online activity impinging on “public order, religious values, public morals, and privacy.” In 2013, a Saudi blogger, Raif Badawi, was sentenced to 1,000 lashes and 10 years in prison under this law simply for creating a website encouraging debate on religious and political issues in Saudi Arabia. His wife and children live in Quebec and have vocally advocated for his release, including by sending a video message to the prime minister in 2017 urging him to personally call Saudi authorities to ask for their father to be freed.
Saudi officials have also had no qualms about using Twitter to systematically harass and target online critics. In 2017, Saud al-Qahtani, a former adviser to bin Salman, started a "Blacklist" hashtag calling on Saudis to suggest online critics for the government to target. The message is clear: there is no space for peaceful dissent in Saudi Arabia and Saudis are not safe at home, abroad, or even online.
At least four Saudi women’s rights activists who were detained in 2018 as part of a large-scale government crackdown against the women’s rights movement have alleged that Saudi authorities tortured them in detention. Most of these Saudi women face charges solely for promoting women’s rights and calling for an end to the country’s discriminatory laws and policies. At least four women’s rights activists remain detained.
One of the most prominent, Loujain al-Hathloul, is a graduate of the University of British Columbia and was first arrested shortly after graduating from UBC for live-streaming herself breaking the country’s female driving ban. She was arrested again in 2018 and told her family, including a brother here in Canada, that she was held in solitary confinement and given electric shocks, flogged, sexually harassed and threatened with rape. In August, her brother told a CBC reporter that the family has not heard from Loujain in over six weeks. “We’re safe — she’s not safe. It’s psychological torture,” he said. She has been on a hunger strike since October 26 to protest her prolonged detention without trial and there are serious concerns about her worsening health.
Prime Minister Trudeau should be enraged that Saudi Arabia is targeting Saudis who had hoped to find safe haven in Canada through digital espionage and an alleged extra-judicial killing attempt on Canadian soil. He should demand answers from the Saudi authorities on these cases. Turning a blind eye to the continued lack of transparency and accountability for Khashoggi’s violent murder at the G20 would also fly in the face of Canada’s efforts to promote media freedom globally.
Prime Minister Trudeau should use the G20 Summit as a platform to call for the release of all Saudis languishing in prison merely for exercising their right to freedom of expression and for their peaceful human rights work, including Raif Badawi and Loujain al-Hathloul, both of whom have strong ties to Canada. They deserve nothing less from the prime minister.