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The Bad Guy Battle: Saudi Arabia, ISIS, the EU and Trump

Updated: Nov 18, 2020

Trump’s immigration ban was one of his most controversial executive orders so far – which says a lot. It has been pointed out many times that on his famous blacklist, certain countries were notably absent, Saudi Arabia being one of the most remarkable ones. The reason for this, a.k.a. business, is almost embarrassingly obvious. However, before we point a finger at our Uncle Sam – even if that finger is rightfully pointed – let’s take a look at the EU’s relationship with Saudi Arabia.

Since 1988, the EU has a Cooperation Agreement with the Arab States of the Gulf (GCC), including Saudi Arabia. This agreement covers both economic and political relations, but mainly focusses on trade. The EU exports mostly machinery to the GCC, whilst at the same time, according to the EU External Action Service, “approximately 70% of all EU imports from the GCC consist of fuels and their derivatives”. With Saudi Arabia being the largest exporter of petroleum, it is no wonder the EU aims to keep relations with the country stable and friendly. If we want to keep on living like we do, we basically need them. In addition to economic cooperation, the EU has recently also strengthened military relations in the fight against a common enemy: ISIS. Part of this cooperation consists of selling arms to the Saudi government.

 I will by no means deny that ISIS is the big bad guy. However, Saudi Arabia is not exactly Prince Charming either. If you compare the two, there are shocking similarities – especially in the field of human rights. Both ISIS and Saudi Arabia are known for harsh punishments, from chopping off hands of thieves to a (public) death penalty for e.g. adultery, blasphemy and homosexuality. For both, neither freedom of speech, nor freedom of religion, are well known concepts. About a year ago, for example, a poet named Ashraf Fhayadh, barely escaped death when he wrote a poem that was interpreted as an insult to God and the Prophet Mohammed. Other significant similarities are child marriages and the absence of democracy. To say the Saudi government is similar to ISIS, however, would be a little too blunt. For a start, Saudi Arabia does not aim to build a Caliphate, like ISIS, and thus does not claim Muslim leadership or aims to attack non-Islamic countries. Secondly, Saudi laws have recently become more lenient, especially when concerning women. Although women still have to stick to a strict dress code, a university has opened its doors, welcoming both men and women and female citizens have ‘even’ been allowed to vote for municipal elections. What remains concerning though, is the large amount of human rights Saudi Arabia does violate and gets away with. Whereas it used to be on the UN’s blacklist of countries that violate children’s rights, it has been removed, enraging several human rights organizations such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty. Especially after the Yemen crisis, where it reportedly killed thousands of children and other civilians through airstrikes, there does not seem to be a non-corrupt reason to erase Saudi Arabia from this list. It does, on the other hand, give a very good reason to at least limit arm sales to this country and other members of the GCC.

I do not know much of economy or the oil market, but enough to admit that cutting all ties with Saudi Arabia is, at least for now, unrealistic. Apart from the economic factor playing an important role, it might be disastrous for those in Saudi Arabia wanting to change the system too. However, the moral question remains: to what extent can you sacrifice your human rights principles for the sake of short term economy? The more practical question here would be: should the EU no longer maintain – or not establish in the first place – economic or political relations with countries that keep violating those rights? And why does such big organizations like the EU and the UN still need human rights movements to point out their hypocrisy?

A small note on Trump: If you’re going to point your finger at him – not the US, just him -, I highly recommend using your middle one.

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