Saudi Arabia: multiple criticism

Summary: Saudi policy criticised over Yemen, Qatar, human rights. Aramco IPO in doubt.
The hajj ceremonies in Mecca, so important for Saudi prestige, are at their high point. With over 2.3 million pilgrims this year all appears to be going smoothly. In other respects recent news for Saudi Arabia does not look so good.
Following the Houthi attack on a Saudi tanker and the suspension of Saudi oil exports through the Red Sea last month the Houthis announced a unilateral suspension of attacks from 1 August for a limited time. The Saudi led coalition seems to have made no progress in its declared intention of taking the key Yemeni port of Hudayda – and if it succeeds the consequences for Yemen might according to a report on the European Council on Foreign Relations website be catastrophic. The UN reported that the main hospital in Hudayda was hit by an airstrike on 2 August and that they had launched a cholera vaccination campaign targeting the most vulnerable half million people in and around the city, one of the worst hit by cholera last year.
At least 33 children were killed in northern Yemen when an air strike by the Saudi-led coalition hit their school bus. The UN secretary general has called for an independent and prompt investigation. The new British foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt said on 22 August that he was “deeply shocked”. Amnesty International UK has urged PwC to explain what due diligence it undertook before pitching for a contract to help streamline and modernise the Saudi military.
The Qatar vs. four dispute seems deadlocked, its only outcome being to undermine the most successful venture ever in inter-state corporation in the Middle East, the Gulf Cooperation Council. Bruce Riedel comments on the Al Monitor website “the Saudi leadership had no concept of how to implement its decision; Riyadh and its allies had a goal but no serious scheme to achieve it.”
Yesterday 22 August a Reuters report based on four senior industry sources said Saudi Arabia had called off the stock listing of Aramco, a key part of MBS’s “Vision 2030”; financial advisers working on it had been disbanded. Today the Saudi energy minister said “The government remains committed to the initial public offering of Saudi Aramco, in accordance with the appropriate circumstances and appropriate time chosen by the Government.”
According to a CNBC report Saudi efforts to build a global financial centre are stumbling; Riyadh’s financial district has more skyscrapers than tenants. A Carnegie Foundation report argues that overlapping government bodies and the state’s hyper-centralized nature “doom such initiatives as Vision 2030.”
Following the row between Saudi Arabia and Canada, on 11 August the EU asked Saudi Arabia for details of the arrests and charges facing women human rights activists, saying that the detainees should be granted due process to defend themselves. Washington has not gone beyond saying that “it’s up for Saudi Arabia and the Canadians to work this matter out.” This week a Canadian Foreign Ministry spokesman issued a further statement that Canada was worried about the case of Isra’ al-Ghumgham (see below) and remained extremely concerned about the arrests of women’s rights activists.
Some of the Saudi students ordered by Riyadh to leave Canada have formed a “coordination committee” to protect their educational achievements. They issued a statement in moderate terms calling for a reversal of their government’s decision “which threatens thousands of students and their families”. Unlike those from many countries students from Saudi Arabia have usually returned home after their studies, perhaps because of the strength of family networks in the Kingdom. Depending on the reaction from Riyadh these may have burned their boats.
Coinciding with the row with Canada, on 6 August Malaysia ordered the closure of the “King Salman Centre for International Peace” opened after Salman’s visit to Malaysia last year. According to Malaysian reports “critics have questioned the partnership with Saudi Arabia to fight terrorism, highlighting Riyadh’s military and ideological role worldwide… Saudi Arabia was not qualified to lead such a centre in view of its official doctrine of Wahhabism which they said inspired the IS ideology.”
The Saudi public prosecutor is seeking the death penalty for five human rights activists including one woman Isra’ al-Ghumgham who have been detained for over two years and are currently on trial before a terrorism tribunal. Human Rights Watch said the charges against them did not resemble recognisable crimes, including participating in protests, chanting slogans and providing moral support to rioters. On 22 August Saudi Arabia reportedly arrested a prominent preacher at the Grand Mosque in Mecca who had preached against mixed public gatherings of unrelated men and women at concerts and the like.
The BBC reports a new Internet radio station Nsawya FM (Feminism FM)  operating in an unknown country and addressing domestic violence in Saudi Arabia.
Even football adds to the criticism of Saudi Arabia. The English Premier League “strongly condemns the illegal broadcast piracy of its matches currently taking place in Saudi Arabia and available in multiple territories throughout the Middle East by an illegal pirate channel called ‘beoutQ’ “and has appointed legal counsel in Saudi Arabia and issued a complaint to the European commission.
This multiplicity of public complaint is unusual if not unprecedented. According to James Dorsey, together with MBS’s alignment with the Trump Administration and Israel, it “has opened the door to challenges of the kingdom’s moral leadership of the Sunni Muslim world, a legitimizing pillar of the ruling Al Saud family’s grip on power.” According to Bruce Riedel “The [Saudi] palace’s biggest success has been in courting a president who does not care about human rights, humanitarian catastrophes or regional stability… Congress, on the other hand, is turning against the kingdom, as is the press and the public. Mohammed is increasingly seen as an autocrat who can’t tolerate any dissent, rather than as a modernizer opening up the country.”
The Economist sums it up (behind a pay wall): ” Muhammad bin Salman’s capriciousness is hurting Saudi Arabia”.

1 thought on “Saudi Arabia: multiple criticism”

  1. This is a useful summary of current Saudi issues. As you have seen, the FT seems to think that the listing of Aramco has been indefinitely postponed. The major international banks are now eagerly pitching to play a role in the proposed sale by the Saudi Public Investment Fund (PIF) of a $70bn stake in SABIC to Aramco. The FT reported that as part of this financial engineering, more than a dozen banks are also competing to take part in an $11bn syndicated loan to the PIF, details of which are expected to be announced at any time.
    While the banks, like JP Morgan, Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs, are keen to lend to the Kingdom and earn their fees, they face a dilemma if they or other institutions or companies plan to invest in Saudi businesses, as Prince Muhammad bin Salman is very keen for them to do. Huge inward investment flows are essential to the rapid development of the Saudi private sector to fulfil the plans outlined in Saudi Vision 2030, which is designed to diversify the economy away from oil and create employment for millions of young Saudis. Foreign investors have to ask themselves what rights they have in the Kingdom, in the light of what you report, and of the roundup last November of many prominent Saudi businessmen, including several senior Princes, who without any legal process, were asked to hand their money over to the government.

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