Government’s Role

Rights and Wrongs - Business as Usual in Saudi?

Commentary, 22 October 2018

By Salil Tripathi, Senior Advisor, Global Issues, IHRB

One by one, global companies are trying to distance themselves from the Saudi Arabian Government.

The immediate provocation is the shocking disappearance and murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. On October 2, Khashoggi went to the Saudi consulate in Istanbul to collect documents that would finalise his divorce so that he could marry his fiancée. 

Turkish authorities said he was murdered inside the consulate, apparently due to his criticisms of the Saudi Government.

Saudi Arabia initially denied the allegation and formed an inquiry to investigate his disappearance. Late last week, the Saudi Government admitted Khashoggi died inside the consulate following 'fight’ with Saudi officials. The Saudi Government also made sweeping changes to the Kingdom’s security set-up and promised a full investigation. 

Global Reaction

This week, Saudi Arabia is hosting a global investment summit, informally called “Davos in the Desert”.

While corporate outrage over Khashoggi’s apparent gruesome murder is praiseworthy, we should recall that Saudi Arabia’s human rights record has been deeply troubling for decades.

Since Khashoggi's disappearance, a growing number of sponsors have pulled out and chief executives of leading companies, including Uber, J P Morgan and Ford Motor Co, have withdrawn participation in response. Lobbying firms are also moving away from Saudi Arabia, such as Harbour Group, who have now dropped their client worth a reported $80,000 a month. Other firms are considering such moves as well.

Dante Pesce, Chair of the UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights, said on Friday that the decision by business executives “to withdraw from the conference underlines how companies can use their leverage to address human rights concerns. Business leaders need to take a strong interest in keeping civic space open wherever they operate. For it is only in an environment where journalists and human rights defenders are able to speak freely that businesses can effectively identify and prevent negative human rights impacts.”

The trigger for this panic among corporate leaders is Khashoggi’s disappearance and murder.

While corporate outrage over Khashoggi’s apparent gruesome murder is praiseworthy, we should recall that Saudi Arabia’s human rights record has been deeply troubling for decades. Yet business leaders have seldom raised public concern.

Why have companies acted now? Should they have been silent all these years? And what does the world expect of any company in a similar situation today? 

The brutality of the act is horrific, and may have prompted media companies to avoid being seen participating in the event, as broadcasters, sponsors, or participants. Businesses have likely acted because of more active media scrutiny.

Acts and Impacts

The apparent Saudi action, while cruel and arbitrary, is not in isolation.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman received surprisingly warm and positive coverage soon after he began consolidating power. His rise was seen by several leading experts in the West as a watershed event, which would lead to dramatic changes, modernising the country. The Crown Prince gave long interviews to leading western publications, speaking of a rosy future with gradual democratisation achieved through peaceful transition. The national oil company Saudi Aramco would off-load some shares in the international markets and investors would come to “Davos in the Desert” making pledges for Saudi development. 

Companies have the responsibility to assess the human rights risks and impacts of wherever they operate, and on most counts, Saudi Arabia would rank at or near the bottom. 

The oil company’s initial public offering has now been delayed. The harsh crackdown he unleashed against corruption, targeting many royals, raised major concerns over due process. There are also significant concerns over Saudi involvement in the long-running conflict in Yemen, in which thousands of civilians have died.  

Companies have the responsibility to assess the human rights risks and impacts of wherever they operate, and on most counts, Saudi Arabia would rank at or near the bottom. Reports from Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, to name only two organisations, show how little fundamental rights matter to the Saudi authorities. 

Back in 2000, soon after I started work at Amnesty International, I wrote a report which was published as a booklet, showing the human rights risks companies face while operating in Saudi Arabia. Amnesty did not call for sanctions at that time, and we saw our role as telling investors of the very real risks their employees, partners and their employees, and associates might face, while operating in the country.

I wrote in that report:

"Businesses and governments around the world have overlooked the appalling human rights record of Saudi Arabia in the past. One of the arguments being that business interests and requirements are unrelated to human rights. It is time for the international business community to open its eyes. Saudi Arabia’s record on human rights has a direct impact on business interests." 

Among the risks identified were systematic violations of human rights, including torture; trials held in secrecy and not complying with international fair trial standards; a judicial system that did not meet international standards; denial of access to lawyers; cruel, inhuman and degrading punishments meted out to prisoners, including those arrested for commercial offences; denial of rights to women; and lack of support for migrant workers.

The report identified a few good practices by companies, such as not holding migrant workers’ passports, and respecting gender equality within the company’s premises. The report also urged all companies considering trade or investment ties with Saudi Arabia to use their influence and to adhere to international standards within their operations, and familiarise their staff with human rights risks, as well as respecting the rights of the staff without discrimination. 

Little has changed in the eighteen years since.

Saudi Arabia continues to jail dissidents, including journalists, without due process.These include the Palestinian poet Ashraf Fayadh, Saudi blogger Raif Badawi (who has been given the punishment of 600 lashes on apostasy charges, and whose detention has worsened Saudi Arabia’s relations with Canada, where Badawi’s wife, the very brave Ensaf Haidar, lives), and Saudi journalist Hamza Kashgari, who was deported back to Saudi Arabia from Malaysia, because of tweets he had written.

Each of these cases violated international norms, as in the case of Khashoggi. 

It is also painfully clear that the rights of women continue to be threatened on a massive scale in Saudi Arabia.

Much has been made of recent reforms to allow Saudi women to drive. But feminists seeking greater (and arguably more meaningful) freedoms for women have been arrested. United Nations human rights experts issued a strong condemnation earlier this month over the detention of six women human rights defenders in the country. Women in Saudi Arabia are punished for being raped. As Mona Eltahawy, the Egypt-born author who has lived in Saudi Arabia, wrote, 15 schoolgirls died in a burning school building in 2002, because the country’s morality police would not let them flee the building nor allow firefighters to save them, because they were not wearing headscarves. 

A Turning Point?

So while business leaders not going to Riyadh this week for an investment summit should be given credit for their stand, they should also be asking themselves a few questions.

Why was it appropriate to carry on as if it was business as usual all these years?

What kind of due diligence have we undertaken to assess the human rights impacts of our operations in, and business relationships with, Saudi Arabia where the rights of many – women, migrant workers, dissidents – are neither protected, nor respected?

And what steps are we taking to use our individual and collective leverage where possible to make a positive difference today? 

Businesses can and must speak out more forcefully and effectively when they operate in countries such as Saudi Arabia.

No country’s human rights record is perfect. And while Saudi Arabia’s record is exceptionally poor, it is not the only country where widespread and serious violations are common. 

True, companies cannot avoid doing business in many countries, and their presence can be a force for good.

But it requires paying sustained attention to the human rights record and dynamics of each country, by undertaking rigorous, enhanced due diligence in countries like Saudi Arabia, because of the significant human rights risks the country poses, to guide corporate decisions. 

Such due diligence requires processes and consultations with human rights experts on the country, and an examination of indicators, such as how the Government treats its vulnerable people, minorities, women, civil society, dissenters, and critics. Any government that jails poets and detains women simply because they call for equality is unlikely to respect the fine print of investment agreements or comply with other international norms.

Business cannot solve all human rights problems in a country. Neither do businesses have the mandate to do so.

But businesses can and must speak out more forcefully and effectively when they operate in countries such as Saudi Arabia, and must demonstrate – individually and through collective action – that they are seeking to improve the situation on the ground not only for their own operations, but also for all those impacted by their presence in the country.  


Photo credit: Flickr/Pomed

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