Debating Saudi 'Red Lines' on the BBC

On Wednesday I was invited onto the BBC World Service programme ‘BBC World Have Your Say’ to discuss Raif Badawi’s PEN Pinter Prize and the issues experienced by bloggers in Saudi Arabia. Also on the show were Evelyne Abitbol, Chief Execuitve of the Free Raif Badawi Foundation and Saudi Arabian journalists Essam Al Ghalib, Eman Al Nafjan of Saudi Woman, and Abeer Mishkas.
You can hear our segment via the player below or on SoundCloud.  The entire programme can be heard on the BBC website or BBC iPlayer.

The World Have You Say team also produced a 2 minute video, featuring an exchange between myself and Essam.  I noted that political progress is very often won by people who refuse to keep quiet, when those in power tell them to shut up.  Essam made the pragmatic point that Badawi’s blogging and imprisonment has not yet produced any change in Saudi Arabia.
This may be true in the short term but I think that Badawi is, like other civil rights activists (think Emmeline Pankhurst, Martin Luther King or Mahatma Ghandi), playing a very long game.  Rights are won slowly and no single person will effect substantial, lasting change all on their own.  But a vanguard of pro-democracy activists is necessary if change is ever to come about.  In this, Raif Badawi is not alone: English PEN has recently been campaigning for Wajeha Al Huwaider, for example, and also Waleed Albulkhair (Raif Badawi’s brother in-law and lawyer).  There are many others arguing for freedom in the Kingdom.
Later in the show, the Saudi panellists also suggested that the campaign to free Badawi might actually be hampering the chances of his release.  This is an extremely difficult thing to hear when English PEN has invested so much into campaigning on Raif Badawi’s behalf.
There are two responses to the charge.  The first is that to keep silent would be to endorse and entrench the position of the men who are brutalising Raif Badawi.  To seek to appease them through our silence is to accept the power structures, and so, to accept defeat.  Raif’s wife Ensaf Haidar has clearly decided that she will not be subjugated in this manner.  That would be a surrender that the authorities hope to provoke.
The second response is to question the premise.  Raif Badawi received an incredibly harsh sentence, and he was even lashed 50 times in January.  It is noteworthy that, since the protests outside Saudi Arabian embassies, the flogging has not resumed.  One of King Salman’s first acts on his succession was to refer Badawi’s case to the supreme court for review.  This suggests that the global campaign has had some effect on the Government of Saudi Arabia, even if it has not secured Raif Badawi’s release.

3 Replies to “Debating Saudi 'Red Lines' on the BBC”

  1. Brilliant, Rob. As to the campaign hampering his release – I hate to be cynical, but maybe they would say that, wouldn’t they. They want the campaign to go away.

    1. Hi. I am Essam, the other part to this debate. Regrading ‘they’ saying that. They in this case would be myself, because it was I that said its best to keep things private. I said that because we are a very private society that do not like embarrassment or bad press. One gets things done here with a fluffy kind word to the right people. Politicizing issues makes us stubborn.
      Dear Clarice, I am not they. Yes, I work for a government station, but that is only when I am on the air on Saudia Radio. But I assure you at other times, especially on the BBC, I am not ‘they’. It is my personal opinion. No one has asked me or twisted my arm to say anything particular or have a particular stance.
      But perhaps, ‘they’ would say what I just said, wouldn’t they ?

  2. An interesting listen.
    I’m no fan of Saudi Arabia, but the Saudi panellists perhaps have a better cultural understanding of things, & there’s the danger of us as westerners lecturing them. Sadly, progress takes time & is often slow and sometimes we forget the rapid pace of change in Europe from the Renaissance & Enlightenment & the move to secular societies was also accompanied by terrible regressions.
    I agree that the adverse publicity is something the authorities/commentators might consider an irritant, but the Saudis, as Arabs, are proud people, & do not want /like to be seen to lose face and are easily prone to offence. It is a delicate situation. Often more can be achieved behind the scenes, by concerned governments (diplomacy) through private counsel & advice.
    All the other civil protesters quoted, Pankhurst (UK), Luther King (US) & Gandhi (opposition against British imperialism) were protesting against western governments/Empires in particular.
    In an ideal world, I would love to lambast the Saudis for exporting wahhabism, fighting proxy wars against regional rivals, Iran, (equally culpable) & the pompous religious attitudes that made my late father stop going to the Regents Park Mosque in Central London when I grew up in suburban London in the 1980s. I remember him (Pakistani Muslim, left India following Partition) complaining about the change of tone in the mosque as Saudi influence grew (leading to a much less relaxed atmosphere).

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