America Is Giving Saudi Arabia Cover for the Worst Human Rights Abuses in Decades, Watchdog Warns

Last year represented the worst in recent memory for the human rights situation in Saudi Arabia, according to a watchdog that tracks abuses in the totalitarian kingdom.

The Berlin-based European Saudi Organisation for Human Rights released its 2019 report on Tuesday, detailing what it called "a downward trend" for human rights "that shows no signs of stopping."

A key reason for this is the continued support of the Saudi royal family by the U.S. and its Western allies. These relationships offer the Saudi government cover to suppress and kill dissidents at home and abroad, the ESOHR claimed.

"Saudi Arabia has seen a destruction, crushing and extirpation" of its political sphere, independent judiciary and free press in recent years, the report alleged. Power has been accumulated around 84-year-old King Salman, and particularly his son and heir Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, known colloquially as MBS.

Abroad, the Saudi government has continued its war against Houthi rebels in Yemen, support for jihadist rebel factions fighting in Syria, and the campaign against dissidents that claimed the life of Washington Post columnist and U.S. resident Jamal Khashoggi.

"It has become clear that Saudi Arabia is being given cover by its political allies in both the U.S. and several European countries, which benefit from the economic revenue" of the relationship, the ESOHR report read.

Successive U.S. governments had received billions of dollars from selling American weapons to Saudi Arabia, some of which have been used to commit war crimes in Yemen. President Donald Trump has celebrated this relationship, even displaying a poster detailing Saudi arms sales when hosting MBS at the White House.

Donald Trump, Mohammed bin Salman, military, alliance
President Donald Trump holds up a chart of military hardware sales as he meets with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the Oval Office at the White House on March 20, 2018 in Washington, D.C. Kevin Dietsch-Pool/Getty Images/Getty

"Thanks to these allies, who do not prioritize serious promotion of human rights, Saudi Arabia is able to engage in violations and crimes against humanity while some of these countries even participate in and drive such abuses, as for example in U.S. support for the war in Yemen," the report said.

As well as American weapons, Saudi forces have also used U.S. intelligence and refuelling aircraft in their war against Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen. The civil war there began in 2015, with the Saudi government and its United Arab Emirates allies throwing their weight behind deposed President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi in 2017.

U.S. refuelling aircraft stopped supporting Saudi airstrikes in 2018 at Riyah's request following Khashoggi's murder. Germany placed a temporary halt on Saudi arms exports after the killing, but other nations like France, Sweden, the U.K. and Spain refused to do so.

Khashoggi's murder threw a spanner in the works of MBS' international charm offensive. He had worked hard to cultivate the image of a modern, liberal crown prince ready to pull his country into the future, but the assassination showcased ruthless and reckless authoritarianism.

The CIA concluded that MBS likely ordered the killing, though the Saudi government and the crown prince have instead blamed rogue agents. At the end of 2019, a Saudi court sentenced five people to death and three more to 24 years in jail over the murder.

According to deputy public prosecutor and spokesperson Shalaan bin Rajih Shalaan, the court concluded thatt "the killing was not premeditated…the decision was taken at the spur of the moment." The Saudi government has yet to release information on the identities of those convicted.

Three senior defendants, including top MBS aide Saud al-Qahtani, were acquitted of all charges. The CIA intercepted communications between the head of the Khashoggi kill team—named as Maher Abdulaziz Mutreb—and Qahtani, in which Mutreb said to "tell your boss" that the mission had been accomplished.

The CIA took the "boss" to mean MBS, a conclusion backed up by at least 11 contacts between MBS and Qahtani in the hours before and after Khashoggi's murder.

ESOHR said the Saudi court case was a "farcical scene" that acquitted "senior officials responsible for the killing." The move demonstrated the government's "intention to show further disdain for human rights," the watchdog argued.

On the domestic front, MBS has assumed a portfolio of powerful government roles. The 34-year-old is seen as the power behind Salman's throne and is the face of the ambitious Vision 2030 project, which seeks to diversify the kingdom's mineral-dependent economy and introduce liberal reforms with a view to greater foreign investment.

But MBS has also overseen a crackdown on dissent, whether by women's rights advocates, minority Shi'ite protesters or others. "It has become clear that the Saudi government has a strong desire to eliminate all domestic forces and voices that advocate for human rights, and it has become customary to criminalize every voice making a demand or a criticism," ESOHR said.

Among the most prominent figures detained is feminist activist Loujain al-Hathloul, known for her opposition to the female driving ban eventually lifted by MBS in June 2018. She was kidnapped from the UAE in 2018 and returned to Saudi Arabia, held for several days and then released.

She was re-arrested in May 2018, one of several female and male women's rights activists. She has since been put on trial for undermining state security, though the details of the charges have not been revealed and reporters and diplomats have not been allowed to attend any hearings of her case.

Hathloul has said she has been repeatedly tortured in prison and threatened with rape and death, including in person by Qahtani.

The kingdom's opaque justice system is central to the ESOHR's report. The Saudi judiciary is not independent and effectively acts as an arm of the ruling royal family. Sensitive cases are often routed through the secretive Specialized Criminal Court, established to try those suspected of terrorist offences.

The ESOHR noted that the rate of executions in Saudi Arabia has increased in the past few years, despite MBS' suggestion that he would try and reduce the use of capital punishment.

The report also noted a concerning increase in the use of torture, especially on those who are eventually executed. This "ugliness and brutality," the ESOHR said, has become an "institutional practice ordered by the king and the crown prince, who provide protection for it."

Newsweek has contacted the State Department and the Saudi embassies in London and Washington, D.C. to request comment on the ESOHR report.