Speak up for human rights in debate over Saudi relations

In the aftermath of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s murder, there has been a striking failure to speak up for other silenced voices in Saudi Arabia who may yet be saved from a similar fate.

Two foremost struggles for human rights in Saudi Arabia are those for freedom of expression and the status of women. Raif and Samar Badawi, siblings who are Saudi prisoners of conscience, embody these respective struggles.


Their cause finds support across the political spectrum and is mutually beneficial to the United States and Saudi Arabia. Recently, the U.S. Senate unanimously approved a resolution calling “on the government of Saudi Arabia to release Raif Badawi, Samar Badawi, and the Saudi women’s rights activists.” Even Ali Shihabi, founder of the Washington, D.C.-based Arabia Foundation, has stated that “women activists and other moderate critics of the government should be released from prison as soon as possible.”

Raif Badawi was sentenced to 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes for starting an online forum for the free exchange of ideas. He was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize and is a recipient of the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, the European Parliament’s highest honor, among dozens of other awards and accolades. His sister, Samar Badawi, recipient of the U.S. State Department’s International Women of Courage Award and a leader in the women’s rights movement in Saudi Arabia, is being detained incommunicado in Dhahban Prison on unknown charges. The urgency of her plight is heightened by recent reports of torture by electrocution, flogging and waterboarding inflicted on activists held at the prison.

The growing international outcry is undermining Saudi Arabia’s economy, entertainment sector and military and diplomatic standing. As international pressure mounts, we have an opportunity to demand the release of the Badawis.

The prosperity of Saudi Arabia’s economy and the goals of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s ambitious Vision 2030 are jeopardized. Countless news outlets, politicians and business leaders, including Softbank CEO, Masayoshi Son, BlackRock CEO Larry Fink, JPMorgan CEO Jamie Dimon and US Treasury Secretary Steven MnuchinSteven MnuchinDemocrats justified in filibustering GOP, says Schumer Yellen provides signature for paper currency Biden's name will not appear on stimulus checks, White House says MORE, abstained from attending the kingdom’s annual investment conference. Prominent figures have pulled out of its futuristic mega-city plan, including at least five board members. Richard Branson suspended billion-dollar negotiations over Saudi investment in Virgin’s space companies and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation ended its partnership with a nonprofit chaired by the crown prince.

In addition to investors, capital is fleeing the country in record numbers. In October alone, there were net foreign outflows from Saudi Arabia of nearly $2 billion, compared with inflows to most other markets. Under increasing pressure, investors and businesses will continue to withdraw from the Saudi economy.

  • The growth of Saudi Arabia’s entertainment sector is also at risk — a key focus of the crown prince’s reforms. World-renowned athletes have withdrawn from participating in events in Saudi Arabia, including Tiger Woods and Roger Federer. A number of entertainment executives pulled out of the annual investment conference and major actors have distanced themselves from the country. In addition, Hollywood-based companies Endeavor and Legendary are withdrawing from $400 million to $700 million investment deals with the Saudi government.

Saudi Arabia also is losing support for its military operations. The United States has stopped its refuelling support for the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, and the Senate passed a resolution to completely remove the U.S. Armed Forces from the war. Meanwhile, Germany, Finland, Denmark and Norway have halted their arms sales. Others are sure to follow suit as the United States and remaining major arms suppliers review their deals with Saudi Arabia.

Finally, Saudi Arabia is undergoing diplomatic crises the world over following widespread calls for an independent investigation into Khashoggi’s death. As a result, the war in Yemen, Qatar embargo, arrests and torture of prominent women activists and the state of free expression are under international scrutiny.

As we continue to debate the future of our relationship with Saudi Arabia, we should not view our approach as zero-sum. We can maintain relations with Saudi Arabia, while seizing this opportunity to stand up for our values.

In the face of cycles of repression and torture, we are at a crossroads. We can choose to remain silent, and live in a world where torture and the brutal suppression of dissent become the norm, or we can give voice to the voiceless and speak up for Raif and Samar Badawi, among others — indeed, the very future of human rights.

Yonah Diamond (@yonahdiamond) is legal counsel at the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights. The center’s chair, professor Irwin Cotler (@IrwinCotler), serves as Raif Badawi’s international legal counsel.