George Cairns assess the double standard of uniting with Saudi Arabia to combat Islamic State because of their human rights abuses, but ignoring Saudi Arabia’s own notorious human rights violations.
If the West choose to strengthen their offensive in the fight against the Islamic State, now larger than ever before, Saudi Arabia will prove a powerful ally in fighting the Caliphate. This should not be forgotten or taken for granted. Yet, why are Western governments so willing to look the other way when confronted with the country’s human rights record.
In Saudi Arabia, Criminal Law is based entirely on an uncoded (a ‘to the letter’ kind of approach) form of Sharia. What that means is that judges are allowed very little discretion in terms of how they interpret each law, and observe very few legal formalities. For example, rulings are most often made without a jury. This modern incarnation of the Saudi legal system can be traced back to the 18th century, when Wahhabism became popular. This was a strict form of Sunni Islam, which favoured the Hanbali school’s version of Sharia, seen as orthodox in its values and which caused disunity in the Muslim communities in the Arabian peninsula. With the unification of the Saudi territories after the fall of the Ottoman Empire, to form Saudi Arabia, Hanbali was enacted across the region, despite regional disunity.
The Human Rights record of Saudi Arabia is appalling. Yet, there seems to exist, some kind of double standard with which the West views relations with the Arab nation. The Kingdom still enacts capital punishment for crimes we would view in the West as far less deserving of such extremities. Burglary, sexual relations outside of marriage, blasphemy, homosexuality and witchcraft – yes, witchcraft – are all crimes that can be punishable by death.
Last month, the lashings of blogger Raif Badawi prompted backlash from the West. He was sentenced to ten years in prison and one thousand lashes, to be administered at a rate of fifty a week. All for criticising Saudi clerics on an online forum. The story made international news and Human Rights campaigners called on Saudi Arabia to review the sentence.
It is unlikely that such a review will take place. The UK and US have strong ties in Saudi oil, and with the rapid growth of the Islamic State, those two nations in particular will want to keep relations with the Kingdom on good terms. Yet how long can we let these Human Rights violations and an outdated, tyrannical legal system rule before we realise that it is too late to do anything. These arguments also extend to Saudi Arabia’s treatment of women. This ultra-conservative version of Islam has not adapted to fit the changing sociopolitical climate of the world.
Nations such as Jordan and Egypt use Sharia in their legal systems, but they recognise that laws need to be updated to reflect how society changes and their Sharia applies almost exclusively to civil cases. This still respects the legal traditions set out in the Qur’an and the Hadith, whilst also recognising the social and cultural complexities of the Modern world. For instance, the world has become better informed with mental illness and this is taken into consideration in court. Additionally, Jordan legalised same-sex relationships in 1951 (sixteen years prior to the UK) to adapt to societal changes and attitudes. An understanding of the way in which social and environmental factors drive crime, is much more likely to help determine the ways to deal with it. If these things are not considered, and a system only deals with punishment, as opposed to understanding the causes of crime, criminal patterns will not change. People will continue to commit crimes and the state will continue to execute them, in an endless cycle. This is what exists in Saudi Arabia, where the legal system appears stuck in a paradigm of history that no longer exists.