GP Insights

GP Insights # 425, 11 October 2020

Europe and Saudi Arabia: Lambasting Riyadh's human rights record, the EU to cut its presence in the
Sourina Bej

What happened? 
On 8 October, the European Parliament voted to downgrade European Union's attendance at the G20 summit over human rights concerns of Saudi Arabia. Riyadh is to host the next summit in November. 

The human rights violations by Saudi Arabia listed in the resolution include the following: the plight of Ethiopian migrants detained in Saudi prisons; incarceration of dissident blogger Raif Badawi; and curbing of women's rights campaigner Loujain al-Hathloul. 

The European Parliament passed a wide-ranging resolution in the pretext that the reduced presence by key EU countries will be, as vice-chair of the delegation for the relations with Arab Peninsula Marc Tarabella said, to "avoid legitimizing impunity for human rights violations and ongoing illegal and arbitrary detentions in Saudi Arabia." 

Once the resolution is heeded by the commission, it would imply that European Commission President and the President of the European Council will not attend the summit. The joint resolution was written by MEPs from the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats group, the Renew Europe group, and the Greens–European Free Alliance. 

What is the background? 
First, the death anniversary of Khashoggi as the trigger. The resolution coincides with the second anniversary of the brutal murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. It sends out a "strong political message" to the kingdom from the EU bloc. The resolution also called for the EU-targeted sanctions on Saudi Arabia's responsible for Khashoggi's murder and highlighted the 'arbitrary' detention of multiple royal family members. EU's assertive condemnation of human rights violations, has recently, ranged from countries like China to Turkey and now Saudi Arabia. 

Second, Europe's attempt to form a coherent Middle East strategy, as the US retreats from the region. The EU, led by Germany and France has sought to take control of Europe's strategy towards the region. Since the G7 meeting, the EU has understood that they cannot rely on the US. Hence, the EU's stance has contrasted with the US when it comes to the Middle East, especially Iran and Turkey. The US imposed sanctions on Iran's financial sector on 8 October, but the European allies have vehemently warned the move would limit Tehran's ability to purchase humanitarian imports amid a worsening currency crisis and the coronavirus pandemic. 

Third, Europe amidst Turkey and Russia's calculated footprints in the Middle East. Russian and Turkish footprints have deepened in the MENA region, as crises pile up from Libya to Azerbaijan. This has made it imperative for the EU to have its own Middle East policy. The recent tussle with Turkey in the East Mediterranean has also exposed divisions between France, Germany, Italy, and the EU. In this, the resolution could be seen as one concerted effort by the bloc in a long time towards the region. 

Fourth, G20 and Saudi Arabia. As a full member of the G-20, the EU is a major economic power at the table along with three of its member states – Germany, France, and Italy. A decision to downgrade their representation would be an embarrassment for Riyadh as Saudi has sought to advocate the summit as key to its international diplomacy. The development follows a move by the mayors of major world cities, including New York, to boycott a G-20-related virtual conference hosted by Riyadh last month also over human rights concerns. The summit was meant to showcase the ambitious modernization drive of de facto ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, whose international reputation has been tarnished by Khashoggi's murder and its role in the conflict in Yemen.

What does it mean? 
The resolution, once heeded by the Commission will definitely look to provide an institutional stand against Saudi Arabia and with it the Middle East policy. What lies ahead for the EU in the Middle East is hardening to its stance, which will be quite different from the US. The EU has solely dependent on individual countries' bilateral policies and taken time to react to Turkey or the crisis in Belarus. 

This resolution could be one of the opportunities for the bloc to have a more-than-rhetoric strategy in the Middle East, starting with Saudi Arabia and Iran. 

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