It was news that caused shock and condemnation around the world and, for a moment, it took attention away from the war in Ukraine.
ast Saturday, Saudi Arabia put 81 prisoners to death in the country’s largest ever mass execution. The state-run Saudi Press Agency reported that those executed had been “convicted of various crimes, including the murdering of innocent men, women and children”.
No details were given about the locations of the executions, or the method, although the consensus among human rights groups that monitor the Arab state was that the men were probably beheaded by sword.
Saudi Arabia has a long history of human rights offences, from its enthusiastic pursuit of capital punishment and occasional public display of corpses — 92 people have been reportedly executed this year already — to its refusal to legalise homosexuality.
It’s a country where women enjoy few rights, having been permitted to drive only since 2018. Anyone who falls foul of its restrictive religious laws can face lengthy jail time. State-sanctioned flogging, for decades a mainstay of its judicial punishments, was finally abolished in 2020.
The kingdom has led several other Gulf states and some African nations in a brutal war against Yemen since 2015. Unicef estimates that 10,000 children have been killed or maimed from air strikes alone since the conflict began. Yet the seven-year conflict has made little impact in this part of the world.
The assassination and dismemberment of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018 was widely covered around the world. A US intelligence report later found that Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman had approved the murder.
The America-based Khashoggi had been a trenchant critic of Saudi Arabia, but bin Salman, who is in effect the kingdom’s ruler and who welcomed British prime minister Boris Johnson to the country this week, has denounced the report and denies any role in the murder.
By contrast, Joe Biden has refused to speak to bin Salman since becoming US president.
If Saudi Arabia’s record makes it one of the planet’s human rights black-spots, that has done little to sully Ireland’s ever-growing dependence on it. Not only does this country rely heavily on Saudi fossil fuels, but the Gulf state has become a vitally important export region, especially for Irish agriculture.
It is little wonder, then, that our senior politicians have been tight-lipped this week when it comes to calling out the atrocity of mass executions.
The Twitter feed of Minister for Foreign Affiars, Simon Coveney has been dominated in recent weeks by Russia’s war on Ukraine, but on Monday, he briefly touched on the Saudi Arabia situation by retweeting a short message from his department. “Ireland,” tweeted the Irish Foreign Ministry, “is firmly opposed to the use of the death penalty in all circumstances, and have consistently made our opposition clear to the Saudi authorities.”
But that “opposition” has not stopped Ireland from doing business with the kingdom — and Saudi Arabia has seen a greater concentration of Irish trade missions in recent years than almost any country outside our two largest export markets, the US and the UK respectively.
Last year, both Coveney and Tánaiste Leo Varadkar led trade missions to the country, the bilateral relationship having first been fostered by Bertie Ahern when he was taoiseach. In 2007, Ahern led a huge trade mission of 170 employees from 114 Irish companies to Saudi Arabia, Abu Dhabi and Dubai.
Last month, following a meeting with Agriculture Minister Charlie McConalogue and his Saudi counterpart in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia announced that it would lift restrictions on Irish beef.
Previously, the country would only accept meat from Irish cattle slaughtered at 30 months or younger. “Ireland’s food exports to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia amounted to almost €100m last year, dominated by dairy products,” McConalogue said at the time. “However, I see the market as one with growth potential, especially for Irish beef. I met with retail and food service customers this week in Riyadh and each expressed a strong desire to purchase more Irish products in the time ahead.”
Ailish Forde, Bord Bia’s director of global business, said Saudi Arabia offers a considerable opportunity for Irish food, with consumers there interested in quality, natural and sustainably produced food.
But while such an arrangement is good for Irish farmers, it doesn’t sit well with human rights organisations here.
Colm O’Gorman, director of Amnesty International Ireland, has long highlighted Saudi Arabia’s lamentable record on human rights.
“We have extensively advocated on international mechanisms for justice and accountability for Saudi authorities, given the grave violations of human rights that they commit,” he says.
While widespread sanctions have been imposed by the West elsewhere, some believe a similar policy should be applied to countries such as Saudi Arabia, but O’Gorman believes such a black-and-white approach should be taken with caution. “Amnesty only exceptionally calls for imposing or maintaining sanctions in very limited circumstances,” he says. “These are, namely, where the sanctions would be targeted, multilateral, imposed in order to prevent or end grave human rights abuses and can in Amnesty’s judgment reasonably be assumed to contribute substantially to that end while not disproportionately harming at-risk groups.
“Amnesty does not usually call for other sanctions due to their potentially negative, possibly unintended, consequences on civilian populations, and the fact that sanctions — particularly unilateral sanctions — are often used as a political tool, rather than a strategic and sustainable means of addressing a human rights issue.”
Any sanctions must have humanitarian exemptions, he adds.
Professor John O’Brennan of Maynooth University’s faculty of social sciences and an expert on EU expansion and its relationship with other states, says Ireland has become highly reliant on Saudi Arabia and its neighbours.
“We’ve become even more dependent on the Gulf for energy purposes and, on a European Union level, we’re likely to become even more dependent on Saudi Arabia as a result [of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine],” he says.
“We talked the talk and didn’t walk the walk on energy over the past 10 years when we should have been moving in the direction of more sustainable sources. And now that we’re likely to need the Gulf more than ever, we’re even in a less advantageous position to say anything about human rights.”
O’Brennan believes the recent events should give countries like Ireland pause for thought.
“The Russian assault on Ukraine really forces us to think about who we are, what our values are and there is an enormous amount of hypocrisy and not just on the part of Ireland.
“Many of our fellow member states in the European Union talk about human rights and then engage in a completely normalised pattern of business with Saudi Arabia. In the aftermath of that really gruesome murder of Jamal Khashoggi, nothing really changed for Saudi Arabia.
“I was watching coverage of the huge Saudi Cup last month,” he says of the world’s richest horse-racing event, “and people were lining up to pay tribute to Mohammed bin Salman despite all the evidence we have, not only about him ordering that brutal murder, but also of being the chief exponent of the carnage in Yemen.
“You might have thought that with everything that’s happening in Ukraine, there’d be a determination to look again at these things but I suspect it’s simply a case of replacing one despot with another.”
Agriculture Minister Charlie McConalogue has faced many questions about Ireland’s trading relationship with Saudi Arabia.
Last month, in Dubai, during his trade mission to the Gulf, Irish Independent farming editor Margaret Donnelly asked him if he was putting Ireland’s exports ahead of basic human rights.
“Certainly not, no,” he told her. “Ireland has brought its values and its heritage and its character and its principles to all parts of the world. And we continue to do that today. Being able to have influence in improving human rights and in bringing countries further down that really important road to value human rights, is having a strong relationship with them.
“And [thanks to] the growing level of trade, the growing level of our relationship with countries enables us to bring our values and principles and to advocate in relation to human rights as well.”
McConalogue says that the Government has been consistent in its advocacy for human rights on its various trade missions to Saudi Arabia.
Yet there were raised eyebrows last summer when Simon Coveney condemned Hungary for its controversial new homophobic laws, shortly after leading Ireland in a trade mission to Riyadh, where some of the world’s must punitive anti-gay laws are in force.
Meanwhile, Boris Johnson’s visit to Saudi Arabia this week has been widely criticised. Writing in The Guardian, Maya Foa, director of the human rights charity Reprieve, points out that official visits from heads of state in effect legitimise human rights abuses.
“By visiting Saudi Arabia this week,” she writes, “Johnson will all but confirm that the Saudi authorities can kill whomever they want, whenever and however, and the West will ignore it. It virtually guarantees that more people whose only crime was to challenge the status quo will be executed. People like Hassan, a religious scholar currently facing a death sentence for the contents of his library.
“The 81 executions at the weekend were probably beheadings, but Saudi ‘justice’ is such a black box we can never be sure. The European Saudi Organisation for Human Rights, which keeps a comprehensive record of death sentences in Saudi Arabia, didn’t even know about 69 of the cases. These men were tried, convicted, sentenced and executed in complete secrecy.”
In recent years, Saudi Arabia and fellow Gulf states have turned to sport to distract from questions close to home, but with only limited success. The abuses of migrant workers who built the stadiums required for the World Cup in Qatar have been widely reported. The Guardian said that 6,500 workers have died working on this infrastructure since Qatar was awarded the competition in 2010.
Last year, there was widespread condemnation of the Saudi takeover of Newcastle United, which nominally makes the English club the wealthiest in world football. Manager Eddie Howe has persistently batted away questions about the club’s new owners and refused to comment on the executions last weekend.
This week, a consortium fronted by the Saudi state has sought to purchase another crown jewel of English football, Chelsea FC. The London club is up for sale after sanctions placed on former owner Roman Abramovich, the oligarch whose association with Russian president Vladimir Putin has been under intense scrutiny since the invasion of Ukraine.
But the lure of huge Saudi cash has not seduced all sports stars.
Rory McIlroy expressed his disgust at support for fellow golf professionals for a proposed Saudi Arabia-backed golf league. Branding Phil Mickelson’s enthusiasm for Super Golf League “naive, selfish, egotistical, ignorant” he confirmed that he would not take part.
McIlroy also sat out the Saudi International golf tournament as part of the new Asian Tour last month, but his compatriot Shane Lowry took part, despite criticism.
“At the end of the day, I’m not a politician,” he told his detractors. “I’m a professional golfer.”
More recently, Lowry said that he had no interest in joining the proposed Saudi Super Golf League.
https://www.independent.ie/irish-news/deals-with-a-despot-the-truth-about-our-relationship-with-the-toxic-saudi-regime-41461427.html Deals with a despot: The truth about our relationship with the toxic Saudi regime