Human rights were on the agenda when Foreign Minister Ine Eriksen Søreide visited Saudi Arabia this week during a Middle East tour filled with “political conversations.” Søreide was keen on nudging Saudi Arabia towards showing more respect for human rights, while the Saudis claim they won’t let anyone tell them what to do.
“Saudi Arabia is an independent country, we decide ourselves what we will do,” Adel al-Jubeir, deputy foreign minister, told newspaper Aftenposten after a four-hour session between Søreide and her counterpart Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud. Al-Jubeir made it clear the Saudis would not let human rights organizations preach to them.
Asked whether Saudi Arabia would free political prisoners before the Saudis host a G-20 meeting in November, al-Jubeir responded by saying that “some of those called ‘political prisoners’ are, on the contrary, people who have broken the law.” He acknowledged, however, that Søreide didn’t try to instruct the Saudis, adding that’s how it should be “between friends.” The Saudis also referred to their conversations with Søreide as “good.”
Søreide herself called her lengthy meeting in Riyadh with al-Jubeir’s superior “open and extremely direct,” addressing both Saudi Arabia’s controversial death penalty and terrorism. “The country is going through a revolution when it comes to social rights,” Søreide added. “At the same time it’s going in the wrong direction when it comes to political rights.”
‘Won’t be blinded’
She claimed Norwegian officials “won’t be blinded” by how Saudi Arabia’s male-dominated rulers finally allowed women to drive cars and phased out a regulation demanding women to be dominated by a male “guardian” at all times. Søreide seemed encouraged, however, by “gradual changes” occurring within Saudi Arabia and by how the Saudis are now following “many of the recommendations we have made” through the UN system.
She said Norway would continue to stress human rights in its dealings with Saudi Arabia and bring them up at every opportunity. This week’s visit was her first to the absolute monarchy run by the king and his son, who was recently all but forced to “take responsibility” for the brutal murder and dismemberment of Saudi dissident and Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi embassy in Turkey. Both the UN and the US’ CIA believe Saudi authorities were behind the murder to silence Khashoggi.
Søreide is also concerned about the fate of several female activists in Saudi Arabia who’ve been jailed and convicted for being disobedient. Dozens of others, including minors, have also been sentenced to death for stating their own opinions. Others have been convicted under a new terror law initiated by the country’s powerful crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman.
“I encouraged open legal proceedings,” Søreide told Aftenposten. She said that Norwegian authorities always ask to sit in on such proceedings, “but now it’s almost not possible any longer.”
‘Never been worse than now’
Søreide herself had meetings with Ina Tin, a Saudi expert at Amnesty International, before she traveled to Saudi Arabia. “The situation has never been worse than now,” Tin told Aftenposten. “For many the situation is life-threatening. Søreide must continue to stress to Saudi Arabia that they set free prisoners of conscious.” Tin added that Amnesty has “good relations” with Søreide and that Søreide “shares our analysis of the situation.”
The Norwegian foreign minister was also visiting Israel, the Palestinian authority and Cyprus ahead of the next meeting of donors to the Palestinians in early April. Norway has a long-term commitment to contribute towards negotiating a two-state solution between the Israelis and Palestinians, and has reacted negatively to a so-called peace plan from the US Trump Administration that has not involved the Palestinians.
Søreide was also keen to discuss the tense situation in the Persian Gulf, the ongoing conflict in Yemen and the violence in Syria during her trip, while stressing Norway’s commitment to a multilateral system, equality, peace and reconciliation. She’ll be taking part in a conference on Cyprus about women in diplomacy.