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Ursula von der Leyen
President of the European Commission

Frans Timmermans
Executive Vice-President of the European Commission

Josep Borrell-Fontelles
High Representative for Foreign Affairs / Vice-President of the European Commission


European Commission

Rue de la Loi / Wetstraat 200

1049 Brussels


Brussels, 26 April 2022


RE: Human Rights in the EU Joint Communication on a Partnership with the Gulf


Dear President von der Leyen, Executive Vice-President Timmermans and High Representative Borrell,

We are writing to share our concerns and recommendations on the upcoming Joint Communication on a partnership with the Gulf. We believe it is imperative that the Communication highlights the poor human rights situation among Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members, and that it clearly states an EU commitment to address those concerns, linking progress in bilateral relations to specific human rights benchmarks, particularly with regards to freedom of expression, freedom of association, human rights defenders, women’s rights, children’s rights, labor rights, arbitrary detention and torture.

Throughout the region, human rights defenders, activists, and perceived critics continue to suffer severe and pervasive state repression. In Saudi Arabia, human rights activist Mohammed al-Rabea and aid worker Abdulrahman al-Sadhan are currently in prison due to charges that relate to peaceful expression or activism. Blogger and activist Raif Badawi, 2015 Sakharov Prize laureate, remains under a travel ban following his release despite completing his unjust 10-year prison sentence; likewise, authorities released women's rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul from prison in February 2021 after she spent 1,001 days in detention but she remains - along with other women’s rights defenders - banned from travel and under suspended imprisonment sentences, allowing the authorities to return them to prison for any perceived criminal activity. A 2018 US intelligence report concluded that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman approved the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi who was killed in Istanbul in October 2018 by Saudi state agents. There has been no meaningful accountability for those who perpetrated and oversaw this crime. In Bahrain, Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, founder of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, Hassan Mushaima and Abduljalil al-Singace, leaders of opposition group Al Haq, and many others are serving lengthy prison sentences, often in filthy and life-threatening conditions, for their role in pro-democracy protests in 2011. In the United Arab Emirates, leading human rights defender Ahmed Mansoor remains imprisoned in an isolation cell for the fifth year and academic Nasser bin-Ghaith and human rights lawyer Mohammed al-Roken continue to serve 10-year sentences following grossly unfair trials.

Rights groups continue to document unlawful Saudi and UAE-led coalition airstrikes in Yemen. In late January 2022, Human Rights Watch and Mwatana for Human Rights documented at least three attacks in apparent violation of the laws of war, which resulted in at least 80 apparently civilian deaths, including three children, and 156 injuries, including two children.

The death penalty remains a major concern, as highlighted by the mass execution of 81 people in a single day on March 12, 2022, in Saudi Arabia, including 41 people from the Shia community, the majority of which for non-lethal offences. An announced reform of Saudi Arabia’s criminal justice fell short of ending the death penalty against children. In Bahrain, 26 people are currently on death row, at imminent risk of execution.

Migrant workers, including migrant domestic workers, face endemic abuse and exploitation. The highly exploitative kafala (visa sponsorship) system gives employers excessive power over their employees. While all GCC countries introduced some labor reforms over the past several years, many exploitative elements of the kafala system remain and abuses against migrant workers have continued with impunity. Abusive practices against migrant workers also apply in the oil and gas sector. The EU should ensure that greater engagement in the energy sector is tied to demonstrated progress to end abuses against migrant workers. This should include the abolition of the kafala system to ensure migrant workers can reside and work in the country without their employer having control over their legal status, allowing migrant workers the right to join trade unions and strike, and ensuring that all workers, including domestic workers, have equal labor law protections.

Further, restrictive laws in the GCC states continue to seriously undermine women’s rights, including a woman’s right to marry, divorce, inherit, and pass on citizenship to her children on an equal basis with men. Legal frameworks perpetuate male guardianship, providing men with control over women’s lives, and contribute to impunity for acts of violence against women. Restrictions on women’s rights to work—such as requiring male guardian permission for women to work or barring women from ‘dangerous’ work--also act as barriers for women who seek to work in some jobs in the oil and gas sector.

Europe’s reliance on fossil fuel increases the risk that the EU’s engagement with GCC countries could directly and indirectly contribute to more human rights abuses. We are concerned that it could also lead the EU to tone (further) down its response to human rights violations committed by fossil-fuel producing countries, including in the Gulf. Rather, the EU should keep human rights at the center of its foreign policy and place its political capital on the European Green Deal in order to reduce energy dependency on governments with a poor human rights record.

We also remain concerned the GCC countries’ action on human rights in international fora. Despite the GCC members’ votes in favor of the recent EU-sponsored resolutions condemning Russia’s invasion at UN General Assembly and Human Rights Council, and their abstention on Russia’s exclusion from the HRC, the EU and GCC members’ voting records on human rights at the UN are far from being aligned. The Gulf countries’ efforts to end UN scrutiny over the grave violations of international humanitarian law by the Saudi and UAE-led coalition in Yemen - in which all GCC Member States except Oman and Qatar till 2017 have partaken - and their repeated support for China’s counterstatements on Xinjiang, are just two of the most prominent examples exposing how the EU and the GCC have opposite foreign policy priorities and agendas in relation to human rights and international law. 

These and other serious human rights concerns cannot be ignored or downplayed by the EU, nor can periodic human rights dialogues with the Gulf countries be considered as adequate tools to address them. A much more robust and firm approach is needed, as also repeatedly requested by the European Parliament[1], and it should be spelled out in the upcoming communication. In particular, the communication should:

  • Clearly, publicly, and unequivocally acknowledge the serious human rights concerns in GCC countries, being as specific as possible. While acknowledging the reforms pledged or undertaken by these governments, the communication should also highlight the need for substantive progress and measure their transformative implementation.
  • Link enhanced bilateral cooperation and closer trade and political relations to clear human rights benchmarks, including promoting freedom of expression, releasing human rights defenders and perceived critics detained solely on politically-motivated grounds, repealing discriminatory laws and policies on women, and protecting migrant workers from exploitation.
  • State a commitment to publicly and privately raise human rights concerns at all levels and in international fora, and not exclusively during the Human Rights Dialogues.
  • Reaffirm the EU’s commitment to re-establish accountability measures and redress for victims of international human rights and international humanitarian laws violations in Yemen.

Furthermore, the EU and its member states should request that any upcoming peace negotiations and agreements include a mechanism that ensures accountability for abuses by all parties to the conflict. The EU should commit to do its utmost in its cooperation with GCC countries to ensure that reconstruction projects in Yemen fully respect human rights.

The Joint Communication on a partnership with the Gulf should make it clear that only a demonstrated commitment to promote rights will be conducive to a more stable and sustainable cooperation between the EU and GCC countries.

We stand ready to meet you any time to discuss these issues further and remain at your disposal to provide any further information.


Best regards,

Yours sincerely,                                           

Philippe Dam                                                                            Lama Fakih

Acting EU Director                                                                   Middle East and North Africa Director

Human Rights Watch                                                              Human Rights Watch


[1] European Parliament resolution of 16 September 2021 on the case of human rights defender Ahmed Mansoor in the United Arab Emirates (2021/2873(RSP)); European Parliament resolution of 8 July 2021 on the death penalty in Saudi Arabia, notably the cases of Mustafa Hashem al-Darwish and Abdullah al-Howaiti (2021/2787(RSP)); European Parliament resolution of 11 February 2021 on the humanitarian and political situation in Yemen (2021/2539(RSP)); European Parliament resolution of 11 March 2021 on the human rights situation in the Kingdom of Bahrain, in particular the cases of death row inmates and human rights defenders (2021/2578(RSP))

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