Activist on trial; foreign pilgrims return; Aramco and the panda bond pool

UN exerts call for releasing activists

Prominent Saudi activist Loujain al-Hathloul, who pushed for allowing women to drive and called for ending male guardianship, was back in court last week. This time it was the Specialised Criminal Court, which usually deals with terrorism and national security issues, after a judge at the General Criminal Court decided last month that it lacked jurisdiction over the case.

Her family say she was presented with an updated indictment that has removed the name of European countries whose diplomats allegedly met with her. The family, who published both the old and new indictments in full online, have accused the government of doing that to fit with the official narrative which portrays her and other activists as not being detained because of their human rights work but rather because they were “dealing with states unfriendly to the kingdom,” as Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan told AFP recently.

The original indictment alleges that al-Hathloul has communicated with diplomats from the EU, UK and the Netherlands ahead of a visit by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to Europe, and asked them to tell their countries to raise her issue during the trip. The family say the government does not to be seen as considering these European countries as “unfriendly” and therefore their names have been removed from the latest indictment.

Not that any of this matters to government supporters who have already decided that the activists are traitors who deserve no mercy:

Translation: Many people misunderstand the crime of communicating, and it must be clarified that communicating is a criminal act whether it occurs with a friendly country or a hostile country. Even between “brothers and friends” and allies, communicating is considered a crime punishable by all the laws of all the countries in the world without exception.

This is just one example, but there is plenty of fear mongering and misinformation being peddled by ultranationalist figures on social media with broad claims that any communication with a foreign government or organisation, intentional or accidental, is a crime.

Obviously, that’s not true. Foreign diplomats in Saudi Arabia are in the country legally and there is nothing in the law that says citizens are not allowed to talk with them. Sharing information with foreign parties might be considered criminal if you work for the government and revealed classified material that you have taken an oath to protect. This raises the question of what kind of state secrets activists like al-Hathloul possibly know that sharing them with foreign diplomats or journalists would be seen as a criminal offence or a threat to national security?

When asked by Bloomberg in 2018 about the cases, the crown prince denied that the charges against the activists are related to talking diplomats or journalists. He insisted they are about talking to intelligence officials and taking money. Here’s an excerpt from the interview:

Bloomberg: These are espionage charges?

MBS: Yes, you can say that

Bloomberg: Does that mean talking to foreign diplomats and journalists?

MBS: Journalists, no. But intelligence, yes. Secret intelligence. We have some of them with videos. We can show it to you. Tomorrow we will show you the videos.

Bloomberg: There will be a formal case against them?

MBS: I believe there will be a formal case against them based under Saudi law. I don’t have any information to suggest they have been treated in a way that is not in accordance with Saudi law and the process in Saudi Arabia. So all the movement that has happened against them, they’re based on Saudi laws and evidence. We have evidence of videos, we have evidence of voice calls...

Bloomberg: This could be them talking to foreign diplomats?

MBS: A foreign diplomat is totally different from talking to intelligence, and getting money, and being paid money to leak and to stop...

So in addition to communications, there is the issue of taking money from outside. “There were funds received from foreign governments that were hostile," Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Adel al-Jubeir told reporters in Washington last year.

Reading through al-Hathloul’s indictment, there is one mention of receiving funds. The public prosecution is alleging that she has received “financial support from an external organisation to visit rights organisations and attend conferences and panels with the aim of speaking about the status of Saudi women.” The evidence presented to support this allegation is her own admission that France’s International Federation for Human Rights has given her plane tickets, accommodation and a €50 per diem to receive a cyber security course in Spain.

There are other allegations related to communications with individual opposition figures abroad and human rights groups, but the two issues mentioned above —carrying out intelligence work for hostile countries and receiving funds— are the ones often raised by officials. The indictment document posted by the family also states that she has admitted to speaking to foreign journalists, including the correspondents of Reuters and Bloomberg who are mentioned by their first names.

UN experts have called the charges against her “spurious” and called on the government to release her.

“We urge the Government to end Ms. Al-Hathloul’s detention, as well as the detention of all the other women human rights defenders, and to conduct an impartial and independent investigation into the allegations of torture while in prison. Defending human rights can never be considered a threat to national security,” said Elizabeth Broderick, chair of the United Nations working group on discrimination against women and girls.

The family say she is due in court again today for another hearing as her trial continues.

One million pilgrims since the virus

Saudi authorities say more than one million people have performed umrah (the lesser pilgrimage) between early October and mid-December as the restrictions imposed by coronavirus have been gradually eased in resent weeks, allowing a partial re-opening of the Grand Mosque to pilgrims and worshippers. 

135 pilgrims arrived from Indonesia last week, marking the first time foreign pilgrims were allowed to travel to the country since the pandemic started. They would be in quarantine for three days. After that, they must use a government app to book a slot to pray at the Prophet’s Mosque in Medina as well as the chance to perform umrah in Mecca.

The kingdom is hoping that vaccine deployment will help the country welcome more pilgrims and tourists in the coming months. The Ministry of Tourism says it has issued 400,000 visas between September 2019 to March 2020 when the country shut its borders as the pandemic took over the world. The ministry also says 160m riyals in loans have been extended to encourage investment in the tourism sector.

Aramco unlikely to sell yuan bonds

The South China Morning Post reports:

Saudi Aramco, the record holder for the most capital raised in a stock sale, created a stir when it said in November that it may sell bonds denominated in yuan, potentially challenging the US dollar’s dominance of the petrodollar market.

On the face of it, this sounds logical: China is a top market for Saudi oil exports and relations between the two countries continue to deepen as the kingdom looks east. However, this remains unlikely not just because the dollar will continue to dominate but also because the panda bond pool remains pretty small. Aramco has raised around $20 billion in bonds since 2019 to balance its sheet and meet the $75b dividend target set in its IPO even as the coronavirus hit oil demand and hurt the company’s profits.

As the Financial Times notes, the vast majority of that dividend will go to its largest shareholder, the government. The same FT piece raises serious questions and allegations about the company’s Jizan refinery project which was originally planned to open in 2016 but has seen repeatedly delays. The site of the project was targeted by Yemen’s Houthi rebels several times. Current and former employees say there are issues with safety standards and not enough was done to protect staff from the virus spread. Aramco defended its safety record and procedures.

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