Saudi Arabia: diplomatic ambiguity

We should tell the Saudis we won’t support them until they put their house in order

 

When Mariam al-Oteibi, a social media activist, complained online about being abused by her brothers and sought help from the authorities, her father used the Saudi male guardianship system to have her jailed for disobedience. In the last month, the Gulf Centre for Human Rights says, two other women have also been jailed under the system which requires male members of a family to approve women’s freedom of movement, access to travel documents as well as choice of residence and work.

Which all makes the election of Saudi Arabia to the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women utterly bewildering, and the refusal of the Minister for Foreign Affairs Charlie Flanagan to say which way Ireland voted inexcusable. “It is my strong view that it would be very damaging to Ireland’s ability to conduct international relations successfully if we moved away from this [secrecy] established practice,” he said yesterday.

In this context we have to assume that the Minister is referring to the State’s solicitation of votes for the election to the Security Council in 2021-22. Secrecy, one presumes, allows for an elaborate “I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine” diplomacy, engaging without political embarrassment even those with whom one profoundly disagrees.

But why does Ireland want a place on the Security Council? Is this merely a vanity project that would allows us to strut the world stage pretending to punch above our weight? A real-politik exercise in corporate branding? In which case it matters little where our mandate comes from.

Or is it, as Flanagan argued in an article in this paper last month, about “promoting our values in the world”? About having an influence for good in shaping a multilateral world order in which the UN plays a central part, for the rule of law, for peace, and against injustice, standing up for oppressed minorities, the starving? For women?

Maybe that’s a bit naive. But it’s almost certainly what the Irish people think or hope we’re doing. And for the time being, whether other states do it or not, we should tell the Saudis we don’t intend to support them until they put their house in order.

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