Business is anything but usual with Saudi Arabia

Demonstrators in Qatif demand the release of political prisoners Reuters

Saudi Arabia, a key player in the conflict in Syria, is an important Swiss trade partner but it regularly makes headlines due to human rights violations. Is conducting business with the desert state complicity, or another way of bringing about change?

This content was published on May 14, 2013 - 11:00

“In Saudi Arabia two human rights advocates were sentenced to stiff jail sentences. . . . The true reason for the high penalty is that the reformers spoke out in favour of change and on behalf of political prisoners,” Zurich’s Neue Zürcher Zeitung reported in March.

"An Islamic cleric rapes his five-year-old daughter and beats her to death.” Although he confessed to the crime, he remains a free man in Saudi Arabia, the free newspaper 20 Minuten reported in February.

“A young Sri Lankan housekeeper in Saudi Arabia was beheaded after being accused of killing her employer’s baby,” news agencies reported in January. Human Rights Watch called the execution “callous disregard for basic humanity and international obligations”.

Human rights organisations repeatedly denounce Saudi Arabia on the basis of blatant violations of human rights. Amnesty International lists, among other things, “detention without charge or trial”, “imprisonment of nonviolent political opponents”, and “suppression of freedom of expression and religion”.

Economic and strategic interests

In spite of this, government and industry representatives from around the world, many of them Swiss, continue to do business with Saudi Arabia.

“A business is not an accomplice” says Jan Atteslander of the Swiss Business Federation, Economiesuisse, “as long as it follows the guidelines of the OECD or the guiding principles of John Ruggie.”

Until 2011, Ruggie was the special representative of the United Nations Secretary General on the topic of “Responsibilities of transnational corporations”. His work had the effect of more clearly defining and limiting the division of roles of states and companies. 

“With trade and investment a country opens itself not only economically, but on other levels as well,” says the Economiesuisse representative. The exchange of ideas and value systems can create new perspectives domestically and is why isolated dictatorships like North Korea suffer economically. 

When speaking of the human rights violations cited above, Atteslander refers to a Spiegel Online article.


The German news magazine reported that “against the resistance of conservatives, the royal house has been taking small steps towards giving women more rights. In Riyadh, under the leadership of a royal foundation, the first campaign against domestic violence was launched.”

Saudi Arabia, Atteslander argues, also plays an important strategic role in the Middle East.

“However tentative they may be, the country launched reforms a few years ago,” he adds. “Saudi Arabia also is active in searching for a solution to the conflicts in Syria and provides a huge amount of humanitarian aid. It’s a stabilising factor in a geopolitical powder keg.”


But anyone who trades with Saudi Arabia without starting a dialogue on human rights can be regarded as an accomplice reckons Geri Müller, a Green parliamentarian who serves on the House of Representative’s foreign affairs committee. This dialogue rarely takes place, he believes. “These days Switzerland doesn’t even try,” he adds.


The State Secretariat for Economic Affairs doesn’t officially have a position on such problems, leaving it to  the foreign ministry, which simply reports that it “regularly raises the issue of human rights in Saudi Arabia when in contact with the Saudi government”–most recently in the context of the ‘political discussions’ which took place last March in Bern.

Readers react polled Saudi readers via social media about how Saudi Arabia’s human rights record is viewed in the context of its longstanding trade relationships with the West.
"Isolating or boycotting the Kingdom is not the solution and would have negative consequences. This method didn’t work with North Korea despite the fact that it’s a poor country. Saudi Arabia is a wealthy country that’s a member of the G20."

“The era of protectorates and conditional trading is long gone. Saudi Arabia can find other commercial partners no problem, like China, Brazil or Turkey. Western countries are the ones doing all they can to develop trade relationships with the Gulf states, all while maintaining fierce competition with China and other countries.”

"Western countries should stop basing business decisions on human rights issues because they don’t respect those rights (racial discrimination, xenophobia) at home."

"For the Western world, business interests take precedent over morals and principles. The proof is what’s currently happening in Syria, in Myanmar and the continued collaboration between Western countries and Russia despite their rigged elections and lack of press freedom. And why don’t they stop trading with China, the largest trading partner of the EU and the US?"

"The United States is still using capital punishment and violating detainees’ rights at Guantanamo. Why don’t you stop all commercial activities with them?"

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"Conditions were illusory"

As long as the US and Europe are allied with Saudi Arabia and other regional monarchies for economic (oil) and strategic (bulwark against Iran) reasons, Switzerland will not demand alone a human rights dialogue, argues Müller. "The kingdom, which doesn’t depend on Switzerland, could cancel economic relations," he says.

"Or it could exploit the dialogue with Switzerland as a pretext for the observance of human rights without anything changing within the justice system. This is a fundamental part of Saudi society."

Compared to the west, Saudi Arabia likes to present itself as a modern state. Economically, the country can keep up with leading Western nations.

But little is changing on a socio-political level. Wahhabi religious scholars still define what is allowed and forbidden. (See information box.)

The "Freedom House” institute, which measures the degree of democracy and freedom in any given nation, awarded the Saudi state its lowest ranking–“not free”–in the political rights category.

Seemingly modern

Saudi Arabia has admitted to financing the Syrian opposition. But its political and strategic role is controversial among Middle East analysts, with many doubting the monarchy is interested in developing more democratic structures.

Müller also notes the sharp contrast between Saudi Arabia’s modern exterior and its archaic social structures. He doubts that trade with the West can contribute to the promotion of rule of law.

“For decades, the Saudi nobility has been on the move in the Western world; they’re familiar with our customs and mores," he points out.

Response from the Saudi ambassador

Commenting on the alleged human rights violations, Hazem Karakotly, the Saudi ambassador to Switzerland, told in an email:

“Saudi Arabia is committed to respecting the rights of the people in accordance with Islamic rules and values ​​... Freedom of expression is guaranteed to all of the country’s inhabitants under the condition that these do not include interventions against people, principles or faith ... The freedoms of religion and faith, as well as the freedom to practice religious rites, are guaranteed for non-Muslims in their private homes.”

Concerning the Sri Lankan domestic worker who was sentenced to decapitation, the ambassador wrote that certain parties had made false statements without verifying the facts. The defendant was not a minor, but 21 according to her passport.

“The crime was proven in a legal process in compliance with the right to a defence lawyer and also in the presence of the Sri Lankan ambassador.” After the verdict, the Saudi government took great pains to convince the parents of the slain toddler to agree to a pardon including a financial settlement, but “to no avail”.

“In the Syrian crisis, Saudi Arabia's stance is clear and sincere.” The country condemns “the repression and attacks by the regime’s war machine, which the Syrian people are exposed to, and the bloody deeds that its sons and innocent citizens must suffer .... The kingdom has provided assistance in the amount of $100 million (CHF95 million) to the Syrian National Coalition, which Saudi Arabia has recognised as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people.”

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Switzerland and Saudi Arabia

In no other country were the 2012 growth rates of Swiss exports greater than in Saudi Arabia. The desert state, with an export volume of CHF1.6 billion, is Switzerland’s second most important export market in the Middle East.

Switzerland was Saudi Arabia's twelfth largest import partner in 2011. In addition to pharmaceutical products and machinery, the Swiss economy supplies watches, agricultural products, jewellery, precious stones and metals.

The trade surplus has been very high for decades. Swiss imports from the kingdom reached accounted for less than 25 per cent of exports in recent years. Precious stones and metals are by far the most important import goods.

Switzerland is one of the kingdom’s 15 most important direct investors.

(Source: State Secretariat for Economic Affairs)

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