Written by: Agnese Olmati

By holding this year’s G20 presidency, Saudi Arabia is once again catching the eye of the international public. With an agenda centred on people’s empowerment, sustainability and innovation, the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman aims to create initiatives and policies that can address the main challenges of today’s world and build a better future. If on one hand this event is a relevant opportunity for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) to bring to the fore the interests of the Middle East and North African region (MENA), it also offers the chance to reflect over the position the country holds in the international context. The kingdom is indeed a relevant geopolitical actor in the MENA region and beyond – including from the European perspective. 

Until now, EU-Saudi relations have been marked by the lack of strategic partnership, as their ties are set mainly in the context of the Gulf Cooperation Council and the League of Arab States. These relations are focusing on economics and security and the EU seems to have turned a blind eye to the human rights record of Riyadh to preserve stable relations with the KSA. Even if the EU and its member states have reiterated the importance of human rights in their relations with Saudi Arabia, this did not result in any consequence, neither on their ties nor on the human rights situation in the country. However, the Saudi presidency of the G20 gives EU countries the possibility to highlight the much-needed change of course in the way the country is dealing with human rights and freedoms. 

By retracing the most recent developments that have marked EU-Saudi relations from the human rights perspective, this article shows that the EU sets asides human rights violations perpetrated by the KSA  to pursue its economic and political interests, thus betraying one of its core values, and that its member states rarely adopt a common and cohesive position in their relations with third countries, thus undermining the idea of a common EU external policy. The paper argues that external relations and especially the next G20 summit are a chance for the EU to advocate for the respect of human rights in the country and thus demonstrate the value human rights have for the EU. Additionally, they give the EU the possibility to adopt a cohesive position towards the Kingdom and consequently show a stronger geopolitical stance on the world stage. 

There is no doubt that the human rights situation in Saudi Arabia is more than worrisome. In the last years, the KSA made headlines with its landmark reforms, the legal right to drive accorded to women being the most outstanding example. This breakthrough drew the attention of the international public, helping the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman get most of the credit. Indeed, this is only one of the many moves carried out as part of what looks like an elaborated marketing strategy to present Saudi Arabia as a modern country to the Western world. If one on hand Bin Salman has been applauded for the path of reforms undertaken, he has also been widely criticized for his repressive attitude towards society. While the Saudi government is making efforts to improve the country’s reputation and ensure a steady economic growth for the next few years, it is impossible to forget that Bin Salman is ruling an absolute monarchy with totalitarian traits. Not only the state’s aggression in Yemen, but also the enforcement of death penalty show Riyadh government’s real nature and approach to human rights. The kingdom still ranks amongst the countries with the highest number of executions in the world, with 184 people sentenced to death in 2019 (Amnesty, 2019). As a firm opponent of death penalty, the European Union has been condemning executions in the country on several occasions and has been advocating for the abolition of capital punishment.
Efforts to expand the economy and improve the overall reputation of Saudi Arabia are not going hand in hand with the improvement of human rights conditions: on the contrary, social reforms have been accompanied by the closing of the political space and restrictions to the freedom of expression. Many journalists and intellectuals are indeed persecuted for having freely expressed their opinion. Several women activists have been imprisoned, tortured and abused because of their campaigns supporting women’s rights in their country (Human Right Watch, 2019).

As one of the greatest promoters of human rights and individual freedoms in today’s world, the European Union acknowledges the alarming human rights situation in Saudi Arabia. This has been emphasised especially in 2015,when the European Parliament awarded the Sakharov Prize to Raif Badawi, a Saudi blogger who was imprisoned and sentenced to 1,000 lashes after having exercised free speech on his website. During the award ceremony, former  President of the European Parliament Martin Schulz recognized the progress made by Saudi Arabia as far as gender equality and civil society empowerment are concerned, while also recalling the human rights violations perpetrated in the country. Moreover, he affirmed that the EU is always ready for dialogue, as ‘a dialogue on human rights between the EU and Saudi Arabia, supported at parliamentary level, could help overcome misunderstandings and misperceptions, foster mutual understanding and support reforms (European Parliament, 2015). The EU has kept on raising its voice about this issue through several resolutions asking the Saudi government to intervene in certain human rights violations as the EU officials have recently reiterated the need to ensure human rights in the country (European Parliament, Press release, 2020). However, Riyadh continues violating the human rights treaties it has signed and Badawi is still in prison regardless of the numerous requests advanced by EU officials for his release.

Despite having awarded the 2015 Sakharov to Badawi, thus condemning with one voice the serious restrictions freedom of expression Saudi people are facing, the EU has not always adopted a clear stance on the human rights conditions in the kingdom. In 2018, the EU did not respond coherently nor cohesively to the brutal killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who was known for his critical views of Riyadh. The EU officially condemned the murder and called for transparent investigations as evidence of the regime’s intention to improve the human rights conditions in the country. Former HR Federica Mogherini presented the follow-up of Khashoggi’s murder as a relevant element for the future of EU’s relations with the KSA, as she affirmed that ‘the way this investigation will be managed is a very important test – in terms of free speech, human rights and the rule of law, for all the people of Saudi Arabia (European Union External Action, 2018). Following international pressure, Saudi Arabia investigated the case and sentenced 5 individuals to death. However, Saudi authorities held the trial behind closed doors without meeting the required standards and refused to cooperate with the investigation by the United Nations (Human Rights Watch, 2019).  Not only the European Commission, but also the Parliament condemned Bin Salman’s government in this context: MEPs indeed called for an EU-wide arms embargo that, however, has been ignored by the majority of member states. Only a few countries, including Germany, Finland, Denmark and the Netherlands, suspended the supplying of arms to Saudi Arabia, thus respecting the 2008 Common Position on arms export controls – which outlines the respect for human rights in the country of final destination as one of the criteria to be respected for arms export. On the contrary, other countries like France, Spain and the United Kingdom did not freeze their arms exports to the KSA, despite having acknowledged the need for clarification on the Khashoggi case and the use of such arms in the Yemeni and Syrian conflicts, that provoke serious human rights violations. The reasons behind such position are of economic and geopolitical nature: France, the UK and Spain were the largest arms suppliers to the KSA between 2014 and 2018 (SIPRI, 2019), with a revenue worth billions of euros every year. To avoid the negative impact of the embargo on the defence industry and jobs, as well as to preserve positive relations with the kingdom, these countries have continued supporting Saudi interests and, indirectly, its human rights approach. The issue of arms sales and the consequent division of EU countries on the topic shows the fragmentation of member states in their approach towards the KSA.
The overall EU’s reaction to the Khashoggi case demonstrates that while EU institutions shared criticism to Bin Salman’s government, EU members states adopted a decentralised response, acting bilaterally to defend their national interest in the relations with Saudi Arabia, and highlights the lack of a consistent EU policy to approach international relations.
However, there have been also occasions when all EU countries singularly agreed on adopting a common view in this context, e.g. when Saudi Arabia was rebuked by fellow members of the UN Human Rights Council for its crackdown on free expression – a statement signed by all EU member states.

With EU institutions and member states having different attitudes towards Riyadh, the EU’s stance on the global stage appears quite weak. The EU’s inability to have political clout on Saudi Arabia is not only determined by its lack of convergence, but also by the challenges this relationship poses. The KSA plays a key role for the stability of the region and in the Yemeni war, that is considered the most devastating conflict of today’s world and in which Saudi Arabia is leading a coalition supporting the restoration of the former President of Yemen Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi.  A positive relation with Riyadh is therefore fundamental for the EU to defend its interests in the Middle East. In economic terms, Saudi Arabia is a relevant trade partner for the EU: import-exports between the two were worth €52,568 million in 2019 (European Commission, 2020). Fuels and their derivatives represent most of the imports from the KSA to the EU, which makes this relation fundamental for Europe in terms of energy supply. Given the strategic relevance of the country in the Middle East, as well as its importance in terms of energy security and defence, the EU avoids focusing on human rights abuses perpetrated by the Saudi government and rather tries to preserve economic and political ties, which explains why the EU’s words of condemnations in the context of the Badawi and Khashoggi cases are not translated into concrete actions against the Saudi government.
Nor the 2015 Sakharov prize being awarded to Raif Badawi nor the Khashoggi case have been turning points in EU-Saudi relations. Neither have they contributed to making the kingdom a place where freedom of thought and speech are respected. However, Riyadh is being condemned for its human rights record and its non-accountability for the murder of Khashoggi has further exacerbated criticism from the EU.

The anti-Saudi sentiment has been reinforced in the context of this year’s G20 summit, as some civil society organisations have criticised the Saudi presidency and decided to boycott the event because they do not want to ‘participate in a process that seeks to give international legitimacy (Amnesty International, 2020), to the kingdom, given its repressive attitude towards civil society and the limitation to freedoms it imposes. As one of the three key areas of discussion at the G20 is empowering people ‘to create the conditions in which all people, particularly women and youth, can live, work and thrive (G20, 2020), EU countries participating in the forum could use this opportunity to foster dialogue on human rights with Saudi Arabia, while the kingdom is exploiting it to improve its image on the international stage.
By retracing the EU’s response to the Badawi and the Khashoggi cases and highlighting the main economic and political issues at the core of EU-Saudi relations, the article has shown that such relations have been marked by lack of consistency from EU Member States and that values like human rights,   component of the core of the European project, are often set aside. As Von der Leyen wants a geopolitical Union, the EU’s position towards Saudi Arabia should definitely be more consistent to achieve better results not only from the political and economic perspective but also in the context of human rights. Tolerating the regime’s abuses, using an empty rhetoric of condemnation and avoiding real confrontation on the issue will keep eroding the EU’s credibility in terms of values and consistency. The human rights critique towards the regime, which all EU member states have in common at least on paper, can therefore be used as a starting point to build a more effective and unified response in the EU’s external relations. A very much needed common stand will only be agreed when – or better, if – EU countries will realise that addressing foreign relations as part of a common European policy is relevant to reinforce their geopolitical leverage as well as to strengthen the values of democracy and human rights they promote as part of the EU. 



Amnesty international (2019). “Amnesty international global report: Deaths sentences and executions”, retrieved from: https://www.amnesty.org/download/Documents/ACT5018472020ENGLISH.PDF

Human Rights Watch (2019) “Saudi Arabia events from 2019”, retrieved from https://www.hrw.org/world-report/2020/country-chapters/saudi-arabia

European Parliament (2019) “Sakharov Prize award 2015 to Raif Badawi” retrieved from https://www.europarl.europa.eu/former_ep_presidents/president-schulz-2014-2016/en/press-room/sakharov_prize_award_2015_to_raif_badawi_.html

European Parliament (2020) “Press release on the mission of the delegation to KSA & Oman on 23-27 Feburary 2020” retrieved from: , https://www.europarl.europa.eu/delegations/en/darp/product/20200304DAL06363

EEAS (2018) “Speech by HR/VP Federica Mogherini on the killing of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi”, retrieved from  https://eeas.europa.eu/headquarters/headquarters-homepage_fr/52623/Speech%20by%20HR/VP%20Federica%20Mogherini%20on%20the%20killing%20of%20the%20Saudi%20journalist%20Jamal%20Khashoggi

Human rights watch (2019) “Saudi Arabia: provide justice for Khashoggi killing”, retrieved from https://www.hrw.org/news/2019/10/02/saudi-arabia-provide-justice-khashoggi-killing

Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (2019) Military Spending and Arms Imports by Iran, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the UAE, Sipri, May 2019” [Fact sheet], retrieved from:  https://www.sipri.org/sites/default/files/2019-05/fs_1905_gulf_milex_and_arms_transfers.pdf

European Commission (2020) “European Union, trade in goods with Saudi Arabia”, retrieved from  https://webgate.ec.europa.eu/isdb_results/factsheets/country/details_saudi-arabia_en.pdf

Amnesty International (2020) Why we are not engaging with the G20’s civil society process in 2020’ [Public statement], retrieved from https://www.amnesty.org/download/Documents/IOR3016492020ENGLISH.pdf

G20 website (2020) “Saudi Arabia 2020” https://g20.org/en/g20/Pages/Empowering-People.aspx

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may also like