Britain’s silence over Saudi Arabia’s abuses is shameful

Published by The Times (5th May, 2017)

Last month a 29-year-old woman named Mariam al-Oteibi attempted to flee her abusive family in Riyadh, only to be captured by Saudi authorities and stuffed in jail. It was not her first time behind bars: last November this unfortunate woman ended up in prison after attempting to file an abuse case against her brother.

Her shocking story was highlighted by Human Rights Watch. Few will be surprised, given the cruel way female citizens are treated in this feudal kingdom. From birth to death women are treated as mere chattels of male guardians, subject to drastic restrictions on almost everything from dress to driving.

No sane person could see this society as a bastion of women’s rights. Fewer than one in five Saudi women work, among the many reasons why this wealthy country comes near the bottom of the World Economic Forum’s latest global gender gap report. Yet from next year Saudi Arabia will serve on the United Nations commission on the status of women, a body supposedly intended to promote gender equality and empower women.

This corrodes any dwindling faith in a tarnished institution that is intended as a shining beacon for the world. Yet it gets worse. For the Saudis were backed in a vote by 47 nations, at least five of them European. Belgium, home of the European Union, confessed to casting one of these votes, its prime minister later apologising for an action that is such a blow to every Saudi woman struggling for emancipation.

At least the Belgians eventually took responsibility for their disgusting action. Other European democracies that love to spout about freedom refuse to discuss how they voted. These include Ireland and Sweden, pious proclaimer of a supposedly feminist foreign policy. They also include Britain, since the Foreign Office will not say how we voted.

This should be surprising, given how ministers and officials constantly bleat about ceaseless commitment to transparency. Yet while insulting to voters, this is typical of our cowardly relationship with this oil-drenched desert autocracy. Tony Blair subverted our justice system to appease a Saudi regime linked to bribery claims. Successive governments carried on selling arms despite evidence of Saudi ties to the spread of global jihadism. Now we send aid to mop up damage caused by British cluster bombs sold to Saudis and dropped on Yemen.

If this nation was not so rich there would be righteous outrage over its shameful treatment of women. Instead, the Saudis are applauded on to a body that is supposed to encourage gender equality. And Britain stays shamefully silent.

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