In an interview with The Guardian, Saudi Ambassador to the UK Prince Khalid bin Bandar bin Sultan bin Abdulaziz revealed the kingdom was considering clemency for jailed female activists ahead of its hosting of the G20 summit this month.
Saudi Arabia has been under growing pressure over its human rights record ahead of the summit, which is to be held virtually November 21-22 and will discuss themes including women’s empowerment.
Riyadh has recently come under pressure to release a group of women activists who campaigned for women’s right to drive.
To allay concerns, the Saudi ambassador said internal discussions are taking place about the importance of preserving the country’s reputation and to assess the political damage the female activists’ detention is causing.
“The G20, does it offer an opportunity for clemency? Possibly. That is a judgement for someone other than me,” he said.
“People ask: is it worth the damage it is causing you, whatever they did? That is a fair argument to make and it is a discussion we have back at home within our political system and within our ministry,” he added.
Prince Khalid said the Saudi courts had found the women guilty of charges that go beyond their advocacy for women’s right to drive.
“There is a variety of views. Some people say it doesn’t matter what other people think of us, what is important is to do what is right for our country, and if people knowingly break our laws they should be punished according to those laws,” he said.
“Other people say it isn’t worth it, let them out, let them live their lives and ignore them,” the Saudi ambassador added.
In addition to the renewed pressure over the kingdom’s human rights record, the results of the US presidential elections and a Qatar-led campaign to discredit Riyadh and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz have reinforced the belief within the kingdom that concrete steps should be taken to resolve the female activists’ file.
Long before US President Donald Trump, a close ally and political partner of Saudi Arabia, lost the presidential election to Democratic rival Joe Biden, Western lobbies had launched campaigns targeting the kingdom, saying the Saudi women activists’ detention goes against the spirit of the G20 summit.
Prince Khalid indicated that there is ongoing debate within the foreign ministry about whether their continued detention could harm the kingdom’s reputation.
The Guardian said that the Saudi ambassador’s statements shed light on the mechanisms of the kingdom’s small decision-making cirle.
Prince Khalid was not sure what the outcome of the discussions would be and whether they would lead to the activists’ release, but his statements revealed that there is concern within the kingdom about the political damage the issue is causing, as well as divergent opinions on how to handle it.
In recent months, media campaigns focused on activist Loujain al-Hathloul, especially after she announced a hunger strike in late October, as the kingdom prepared for the G20 summit.
Hathloul was arrested with other activists in May 2018, months before women were granted the right to drive.
Qatar has launched public relations campaigns and mobilised media outlets ahead of the G20 summit, attempting to portray Hathloul as a female icon whose imprisonment makes the kingdom unfit to host the international forum. The momentum has increased in recent days after Saudi Arabia’s ally Trump lost reelection.
After US media announced Trump’s election loss, further pressure was exerted on the kingdom, with some calling for revenge against Saudi Arabia and stressing that the next US president will raise the case of the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi at his country’s consulate in Istanbul.
Khashoggi’s fiancee, Hatice Cengiz, wrote on her Twitter account, “If you cannot find justice yourself, fate will come with his justice.”
Cengiz toured the United States during the US election campaign season and filed a lawsuit against Saudi Arabia and its leaders in American courts.
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