Saudi Arabia claiming immunity in High Court over discrimination case

Woman takes action over dismissal from cultural bureau in Dublin two years ago

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has issued High Court proceedings in an employment law case in which it is claiming sovereign immunity.

The case involves a woman, Bushra Ibrahim, who was employed in the Saudi Arabian Cultural Bureau in Dublin between June 2013 and June 2017, working mainly on student requests submitted through an online portal.

The former employee is alleging religious discrimination by the majority Sunni Muslim nation. It is understood she is a Shia Muslim.

In a preliminary hearing to consider only the immunity issue, at the Labour Court last year, Ms Ibrahim said that in February 2017 her role was changed from academic adviser to academic co-ordinator with the cultural centre, and that for the following eight to nine weeks she attended work only to sign in in the morning, and sign out in the afternoon. Her employment was then terminated.


The kingdom, in response, said Ms Ibrahim was on a one-year fixed term contract, that her contract expired in June 2017, and that her dismissal consisted only of non-renewal.

The court said it accepted that the woman’s employment contracts contained a clause purporting to invest the courts in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, with exclusive jurisdiction to deal with any disputes.

However, the court accepted Ms Ibrahim’s evidence that she was merely presented with her contract of employment in Arabic for the purpose of signing it, and was not afforded an opportunity to read it in detail.

It followed, therefore, that the former employee, (who is fluent in English and Arabic), had not given meaningful consent to the exclusive jurisdiction clause in the contracts.

“That being the case, the court finds that the [kingdom] is not entitled to rely on Article 11.2 (f) of the United Nations Convention on Jurisdictional Immunities and their Property 2004.”

‘Mere semantics’

The Labour Court decided that Ms Ibrahim’s complaint under the Employment Equality Act was one of discrimination on the grounds of religion, and that the kingdom’s attempt to rely on sovereign immunity was “mere semantics in the circumstances”.

Having decided that the kingdom’s attempt to invoke sovereign immunity was not well founded, the court said Ms Ibrahim’s substantive complaint should therefore be heard by the Workplace Relations Commission (WRC). However the case has yet to be heard at the WRC.

Proceedings against Ms Ibrahim were lodged in the High Court by the kingdom in August and the case is due up for mention on Monday.

Ireland is not a signatory of either a European or the United Nations conventions dealing with state immunity and the issue is dealt with by the Irish courts using international customary law.

The courts’ view has been that immunity only applies to activities that come within the actual business or policy of the foreign government.

In 2014, the Employment Appeals Tribunal declined jurisdiction in a case involving a security guard at the US embassy in Dublin.

In a case involving a cleaner and the Kenyan embassy in 2011, however, the tribunal decided that it did have jurisdiction.

The Saudi Arabian Cultural Bureau is based in the Stockyard Building on Upper Sheriff Street, Dublin 1. The distinctive building, designed by Scott Tallon Walker, was bought by the bureau in 2014.

Colm Keena

Colm Keena

Colm Keena is an Irish Times journalist. He was previously legal-affairs correspondent and public-affairs correspondent