Chinese traditional dance teams perform during the inauguration ceremony of the Yanbu Aramco Sinopec Refining Company project in 2016. With the drop in oil prices, Saudi Arabia and Iran, are both eagerly courting China for investment. Photo: AFP, Fayez Nureldine
Chinese traditional dance teams perform during the inauguration ceremony of the Yanbu Aramco Sinopec Refining Company project in 2016. Photo: Fayez Nureldine / AFP

The government of Saudi Arabia has undertaken a renewed wave of arrests. The human-rights organization ALQST reported that between April 4 and 9, the government detained at least 10 rights activists and writers, in only the latest crackdown on civil society.

Far away from East Asia, right? Wrong. Such cases are right here.

On March 25 sisters “Rawan,” 18, and “Reem,” 20, who had been trapped in Hong Kong, were granted asylum to an unnamed third country. In February, Thai officials at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport released soccer player Hakeem al-Araibi, a refugee from Saudi Arabia’s close ally Bahrain. Araibi returned to Australia, where he holds residency, after Bahrain dropped its extradition request. In January, Rahaf Mohammed al-Qanun, 18, was granted asylum to Canada, again from Bangkok, after she barricaded herself in a hotel room and launched an appeal via social media.

Earlier, in April 2017, the Philippine authorities at Manila’s international airport quickly handed Saudi national Dina Ali Lasloom, whom they had briefly detained, over to Saudi officials and her family before she was forcibly returned to Saudi Arabia. Her fate since then is unclear. Earlier still, in February 2012, Malaysian authorities arrested Saudi blogger Hamza Kashgari in Kuala Lumpur and, after an appearance before an immigration judge, they forcibly returned him to Saudi Arabia.

These are only a handful of  individuals from a Saudi population of some 33 million and a Gulf region population of around 55 million.

Yet in our hyper-connected world, with just a few clicks, the most recent of these individuals employed their networks to alert the world’s mainstream media to the conduct of state officials in these Asian airports. Twitter and YouTube provided global stages on which the fate of Rahaf Mohammed and Hakeem al-Araibi played out, and the Thai authorities appeared caught off guard and bewildered.

In the case of Mohammed, the Thai authorities held a televised meeting with Saudi government officials, in which the latter sought her return. A Saudi official quipped wryly that it would have been better to confiscate her phone than her passport. Suddenly, the notion embodied in Saudi Arabian law that her guardian – her father – should have control over the movements of a young woman was shown up as antiquated and out of step with the modern world.

In Araibi’s case, the Thai government was keen to find a way out and issued a public plea for Bahrain and Australia to solve their differences. Eventually, the Bahraini authorities retracted their extradition request. Times are changing.

Asia must lead

Saudi blogger and activist Omaima al-Najjar, who spent five years in northeastern China, says there has been a sea-change in many Chinese social-media users’ understanding of the Arab Gulf region – for the better.

“Between 2011 [and]2013, there was a transformation,” he said. The image of the kingdom went from an “oil-rich, desert-covered” monolith to “a place where women could not drive and whose laws were unforgiving.”

“They have an increasingly nuanced awareness of Saudi society,” Najjar added.

Nowadays, Asian leaders must expect that public opinion is or can be broadly aware of developments in the Gulf.

In July 2018, Chinese President Xi Jinping visited the United Arab Emirates, a close ally of Saudi Arabia, and signed a “comprehensive strategic partnership” agreement. In February this year, Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, Mohammad bin Salman, visited China. The prince known as MBS signed 35 economic memoranda and agreed a US$10 billion oil deal, reportedly of some complexity.

Over the 2000-2017 period, annual trade between China and the Gulf Cooperation Council countries has risen from $10 billion to more than $150 billion, with China exporting more goods to Bahrain and the UAE than it imports. As its Look East policy enters a second decade, Dubai is leading the UAE to seek ever-deepening involvement in the Chinese economy, not least the Belt and Road Initiative – positioning itself as a strategic transport node.

GCC leaders see economic relations as more secure and reliable: the key to future growth. And that is the point. There is a logical and now inexorable momentum for such relations, which will deepen. And that is partly why officials in East and Southeast Asian countries can and must be on the right side of history with regard to the few difficult cases that end up in the region’s airports seeking to transit to third countries. Relations with the Gulf states will not change, but vulnerable lives can be changed.

Raising awareness

Yahya Assiri, the director of ALQST, says the organization has recorded a steep decline in the observance of human-rights norms since the appointment of MBS as Saudi Arabia’s crown prince. The organization has recorded waves of arrests, like that around May 2018, when the government detained women’s rights activists like Loujain al-Hathloul, who fought for the rights of women to drive. On April 10, her sister Lina delivered a powerful speech about Loujain, pleading for her release. They now face an ongoing unfair trial.

Loujain al-Hathloul and five others, ALQST asserts, were tortured or ill-treated in custody, the others being Samar Badawi, Shadan al-Onezi, Aziza al-Yousef, Eman al-Nafjan and Nouf al-Dosari.

But it was the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul last October that changed everything. It terrified Saudi and Gulf activists across the world. At the same time, as many wondered if the worldwide revulsion would lead to change, arising from the widespread belief that the murder was ordered by MBS.

The trial of the women’s rights activists and the new wave of arrests in April provided the answer: Saudi Arabia has a complete lack of awareness or disregard for human rights.

Asian governments and leaders who are increasingly engaged with Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf monarchies should support those few individuals who make their way to their airports. For the people of East and Southeast Asia, Assiri and ALQST ask that you do your best to let your governments know that you know their partners are among the most serious human-rights violators in the world.

Over time, change will come.

Drewery Dyke

Drewery Dyke is a fellow at the UK's Foreign Policy Centre. He works closely with two human rights organizations: ALQST, focused on Saudi Arabia, and Salam for Democracy and Human Rights, which is Bahrain-focused.

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