On 7 June the Supreme Court of Saudi Arabia upheld the increased sentence made on Saudi blogger, Raif Badawi.
Raif was charged with “setting up a website that undermines general security”, “ridiculing Islamic religious figures”, and “going beyond the realm of obedience” in December 2012 — a victim of the reaction across the region to the Arab Spring. In July 2013 he was sentenced and in May 2014 his sentence was increased to 10 years imprisonment and a 1,000 lashes to be delivered over 20 weekly sessions of 50 lashes each.
An international campaign rapidly grew demanding that the floggings be stopped and for him to be immediately and unconditionally released. Amnesty International’s petition attracted in excess of 1.2 million signatures; weekly vigils took place across the world, in most capitals of Europe as well as such places as Tunisia. In London, in the absence of Amnesty International organising them the NGO, English PEN organized weekly vigils outside the Saudi Embassy.
Saudi Arabia has dramatically changed its foreign policy over the last year and its internal treatment of dissidents has to be seen in this context.
For a long-time Saudi Arabia took its lead from the West on Middle East foreign policy. Its ruling class accumulated vast wealth after the hike in oil prices in 1972. Its oil was bought and distributed by European and American companies, its assets were handled by Western banks and its increasingly large military expenditure was met by contracts with Western arms companies.
Over the last 40 years the extent of Saudi/ European and Saudi/American capitalist interpenetration has become immense. The UK has approaching £12 billion invested in Saudi Arabia whilst it continues to invite Saudi investment in the UK, particularly in the property market. Saudi investment in the UK is currently over £62.5 billion. As capitalist interdependence grew — so did foreign policy interdependence. Despite the Wahhabist Islamist doctrine on which the regime was built and internally maintained — Saudi Arabia became Western imperialisms key ally in the region.
But Saudi Arabia is no simple agent of US imperialism as some socialists have argued. It had its own desires to extend its political and financial dominance.
The Saudi Arabian religious and royal hierarchy – its ruling class – spent immense amounts (reported by some to be as high as £10 billion a year) of their money in funding mosques, madrassas (religious schools) as well as other social and seeming charitable endeavours across the “Muslim world”, to build the status of and make allies for Saudi Arabia in these countries. The international network around the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood benefited enormously as did many others.
This began to fragment with the US/UK war on Iraq in 1991. Saudi Arabia allowing US and UK bases on their territory was too much for their, more consistent Wahhabist, allies in other countries. However Saudi Arabia did not yet feel threatened by the divergence amongst the international allies it had built up.
The emergence of Daesh has triggered the more major change in Saudi internal and foreign policies in the past year. Saudi Arabia have woken up the fact that the billions of dollars they are investing in the indoctrination of Muslim youth across the world is not primarily enhancing their power but that of Daesh.
They have now taken the decision to forcefully re-assert themselves as the centre of Wahhabist clerical fascism.
In Saudi Arabia there is now a huge working class in vast expanding cities. There are 1 million building workers alone. There 8 million migrant workers. There is a fascist regime: no democratic or labour rights; no free speech or free press. But the current repression in Saudi is not purely the remnants of a medieval ideology — they are a sign of its weakness and fear.
Raif Badawi had the courage to speak out after the Arab Spring of 2011-12. He remains under threat of the floggings restarting at any time and he is known not to be in a good physical condition.
That is why the campaign to defend him and to expose the hypocrisy and complicity of Western governments if they do not get him out of jail is so important.
The UK campaign to get Raif, his lawyer Waleed Abu AlKhair, and other “prisoners of conscience” released was set up three months ago. We handed in an open letter to the Prime Minister on 17 June demanding a ban on arms sales to Saudi Arabia and calling for other trade sanctions on things that that give succour to the regime. The letter was signed by 930 human rights activists, including Noam Chomsky, Bianca Jagger and Jimmy Wales as well as many writers, journalists and bloggers.
David Cameron won’t stop the arms trade to Saudi Arabia — we know that. There are currently legal challenges to try and block contracts being made with Saudi prisons by UK businesses. But legal challenges and pleas to any politician will not be enough.
We need to campaign politically and do so energetically. We need to take the issue to the trades union movement – to the workers whose products are being passed to the Saudi state terrorists.
Getting Raif out of prison is an essential step in the liberation of all victims of tyranny in Saudi Arabia and ending the tyranny that Saudi Arabia spreads across the Middle East and beyond.
• The UK coalition to Free Raif is calling for a mass protest outside the Saudi Embassy should he be flogged again. The protest will take place the day after any flogging. PEN are asking people to pledge to take part here