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In 2016 Saudi Arabia launched ‘Vision 2030’, a package of economic and social reforms intended to reduce Saudi Arabia’s dependence on oil, diversify the economy and develop public service sectors such as health, education, infrastructure, recreation and tourism. The implication of this vision was a degree of social liberalisation, with an emphasis upon increasing the role of women in society.

Vision 2030 did not, however, address human rights reform directly, and while progress has been made in the last few years on women’s human rights, the country continues to be widely criticised over its human and political rights record.

In mid-2018 the Saudi authorities arrested prominent women’s rights defenders, a number of whom remain in detention and who, according to Amnesty International, have been subject to mistreatment and torture. The arrest of political dissidents, prominent clerics, journalists and academics has also continued. The murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October 2018 has drawn international condemnation.

In its recently published Annual Human Rights and Democracy Report for 2018, the Foreign office lists Saudi Arabia as a “human rights priority country”. The report concluded:

The positive trajectory of social reform in Saudi Arabia continued in 2018, particularly the increased participation of women in society. However, the observance of civil and political rights in Saudi Arabia continued to deteriorate. The reduced political and civil space resulted in the mass arrests of journalists, activists, clerics, and opposition figures, increased use of terrorist courts to prosecute activists, and the murder and harassment of dissidents overseas. We continued to have concerns about the implementation of the death penalty and the treatment of migrant workers.

The UK Government has, however, been accused of muting its criticisms on human rights because of the country’s importance as an ally and trading partner, particularly in terms of arms exports. The Saudi armed forces are currently using UK built and licensed arms in their military operation in Yemen, in which they have been accused of committing violations of International Humanitarian Law (IHL).

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