On 24 November 2022, the House of Lords is scheduled to debate the following motion:

Lord Scriven (Liberal Democrat) to move that this House takes note of the steps His Majesty’s Government might take to address human rights abuses in the Gulf states.

Lord Scriven is a vice chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Democracy and Human Rights in the Gulf. The Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy (BIRD) acts as the group’s secretariat. The institute describes itself as a “non-profit organisation focusing on advocacy, education and awareness for the calls of democracy and human rights in Bahrain”. However, the APPG’s reports and meetings focus on democracy and human rights throughout the Gulf region.

1. The Gulf states and human rights

Six countries in the Gulf collectively form a political and economic alliance known as the Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf, or Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). They are Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The Congressional Research Service is among bodies that have described Saudi Arabia as the lead state in practice, although GCC members are formally equal. Although both Iraq and Iran also border the Gulf, neither is a member of the GCC.

The six GCC states are widely considered by many governments and human rights organisations to limit civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights set out in core international agreements that together form the basis of international human rights law. For example, all six states limit press and religious freedom, place limits on political participation and retain the death penalty, while all GCC members except Bahrain criminalise same-sex relationships. Criticism of GCC members’ human rights records has also tended to centre on long-standing issues in respect of gender rights and workers’ rights. Migrant workers account for an average of 70% of the employed population in GCC states.

2. Recent human rights assessments

2.1 Governmental and international

In its most recent human rights and democracy report, published in July 2021, the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) identified Bahrain and Saudi Arabia as two of 31 human rights priority countries. In the case of Bahrain, the FCDO noted that the country had begun drafting an integrated national human rights action plan, although it added that “challenges remained around freedom of expression and the death penalty”. In respect of Saudi Arabia, the report said:

Progress made under the Vision 2030 economic and social reform programme continued, despite the challenges presented by Covid-19. At the same time, the clampdown on political activity and freedom of expression remained. Reforms provided more opportunities for women and increased protections for migrant workers’ rights. The government took steps to reform the death penalty system, and there was a significant reduction in the use of the death penalty. The Saudi authorities detained a number of high-profile individuals, and the trials of a number of existing detainees, including prominent women’s human rights defenders, concluded with custodial sentences.

The FCDO’s human rights and democracy reports are usually published annually, although a report covering 2021 has yet to be published. In July 2022, the government said it intended to publish the 2021 report before the beginning of the summer recess.

The US Department of State published its most recent country reports on human rights practices in April 2022. The reports for all six GCC countries listed multiple, significant and credible human rights violations in a range of areas. Abuses common to all included: arbitrary arrest and/or detention; serious restrictions on free expression and media, including censorship and/or criminal libel laws; and interference with the freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of association, including in most cases overly restrictive laws on the organisation, funding or operation of non-governmental organisations. Other abuses identified in one or more GCC member state country reports included:

  • torture and/or cases of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment by government agents
  • harsh and/or life-threatening prison conditions
  • arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy and/or serious restrictions on internet freedom
  • serious and unreasonable restrictions on political participation
  • serious government restrictions or harassment of domestic and international human rights organisations
  • lack of investigation of and accountability for gender-based violence
  • crimes involving violence or threats of violence targeting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or intersex persons or the criminalisation of LGBT+ conduct
  • significant restrictions on workers’ freedom of association, prohibitions on independent trade unions and/or labour exploitation of foreign migrants

The EU high representative for foreign affairs and security policy’s most recent annual report on human rights and democracy around the world was also published in April 2022. Regarding the Gulf states, the report said that “while challenges remain, Gulf countries during the last decade have seen important steps towards societal transformation related to human rights, notably labour rights, women’s rights, freedom of religion or belief and interfaith dialogue”. The report noted that the EU held “regular dialogues” on human rights with Gulf countries and that such meetings were:

[…] an opportunity for the EU to express its concerns about the overall restrictive environment regarding civil and political rights, and freedom of religion or belief, executions, detention conditions, and to raise individual cases. Those dialogues are also occasions to encourage partners to ratify core international human and labour rights treaties and cooperate with UN special procedures.

The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) maintains country pages covering the Gulf states. These provide updates on recent human rights-related reports, including those associated with ‘universal periodic reviews’ conducted under the umbrella of the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) or by other UN bodies that monitor implementation of human rights conventions or agreements. Recent reports or statements from UN bodies have urged:

  • Bahrain to strengthen the independence of its National Institution for Human Rights
  • Kuwait to reduce discrimination against non-Kuwaiti and stateless children, as well as enabling Kuwaiti women to pass on their nationality to their children
  • Oman to strengthen the independence of its National Human Rights Commission, clarify the mandate and authority of its National Commission for Family Affairs and adopt a national strategy for women
  • Qatar to intensify efforts to prevent the deaths of migrant workers and eliminate restrictions on the rights of naturalised Qatari citizens to vote
  • Saudi Arabia to halt all executions, immediately establish a moratorium on the use of the death penalty and commute the death sentences against those on death row
  • the UAE to introduce a viable pathway for victims of torture and ill-treatment by the state’s regular armed forces, state security agencies and related non-state armed groups to seek justice, redress and rehabilitation

During a November 2022 visit to Bahrain, Pope Francis spoke out against the death penalty. He said religious freedom should not be limited to freedom of worship and called for safe and dignified conditions for workers in the country.

2.2 Non-governmental organisations

The US-based non-profit organisation Freedom House awards countries a “global freedom status” as a score out of 100. In 2021, it rated Bahrain (12), Oman (24), Qatar (25), Saudi Arabia (7) and the UAE (17) as “not free”, while rating Kuwait (37) as “partly free”.

The US-based libertarian think tank the Cato Institute’s human freedom index scores countries on a scale of zero to 10, where 10 represents “more freedom”. All GCC members’ scores for human freedom in 2019 fell below the average score for 165 jurisdictions of 7.12. The institute gave scores as follows: Bahrain (5.73), Kuwait (6.34), Oman (5.92), Qatar (6.15), Saudi Arabia (5.12) and the UAE (6.06).

In its most recent annual review of human rights around the world, Human Rights Watch noted reports of serious human rights abuses in the Gulf states, including those reported by the Gulf Centre for Human Rights. The report criticised the EU in particular for allegedly pursuing trade and cooperation ties with GCC members while making limited public reference to human rights abuses, in particular those committed in Saudi Arabia. However, in a March 2022 statement the EU said it had “a lot to offer” partners in the Gulf as an “important mediator and promoter of multilateralism, democracy and social transformation including human rights and gender equality”.

In May 2022, Amnesty International, which campaigns against executions, reported that Saudi Arabia had conducted 65 executions in 2021. This was an increase of 140% on the 27 carried out a year earlier. For the same year, Amnesty reported an exoneration in Bahrain; that Oman had handed down death sentences; that no executions were recorded in Qatar; and that the UAE had resumed executions. Amnesty has also reported on the situation in respect of other human rights abuses throughout the region. It has recently called on sport fans to “pause for thought and consider the dozens of people languishing behind bars in GCC countries simply for exercising basic rights” ahead of the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar and the November 2022 Abu Dhabi Formula One Grand Prix in the UAE.

In its 2022 press freedom index, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) ranked all GCC members as having low press freedom scores. Out of 180 countries, GCC members placed as follows: Bahrain (167), Kuwait (158), Oman (163), Qatar (119), Saudi Arabia (166) and the UAE (138).

The Pew Research Centre ranked all GCC members as having high restrictions on religion scores as part of its government restrictions index. The most recent scores were for 2019.

The International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA) notes that consensual, same-sex sexual activity is criminalised in all GCC members except Bahrain. The penalties can be severe, including death by stoning or beheading in Saudi Arabia. The ILGA further notes that in 2013 Qatar was exploring a ban on gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender foreigners from working in the region, but backtracked under pressure ahead of the 2022 FIFA World Cup.

The International Trade Union Confederation has previously criticised GCC members for having “some of the worst employment laws in the world, with millions of migrant workers denied the right to form and join unions and ‘sponsorship’ systems that tie workers to their employer”.

3. UK government policy

3.1 Gulf Strategy Fund

The UK has a close security and trading relationship with the GCC. Since April 2020, the UK has funded human rights, governance and trade programmes in GCC states through the Gulf Strategy Fund (GSF). Support was provided previously by the Integrated Activity Fund, itself introduced in 2015.

The GSF operates as part of the FCDO’s international programme and is not counted as overseas development assistance (ODA). The government has described the aims of its six GSF country programmes for 2021/22, allocated a total of £10mn, as follows:

  • Bahrain: Supports Bahrain-led and owned reform and capacity building programme to deliver long-term security, stability and foster science, tech and prosperity links with Bahrain.
  • Kuwait: Supports Kuwait’s Vision 2035 sustainable actions on climate change, anti-corruption, education and cultural recognition. Identifies prosperity targets around economic diversification, scientific collaborations and security.
  • Oman: Supports Oman’s economic reforms including capacity building within key government institutions with a focus on green initiatives; the growth of Oman as a digital hub with deep expertise in cyber skills; long-term resilience through the finalisation of an Omani national risk register; and support to human rights compliant training.
  • Qatar: Supports preparations for World Cup 2022, in particular the provision of UK expertise to support Qatar’s football policing capability along with values and legacy initiatives. Develop government-to-government cooperation in areas such as climate, conservation and higher education.
  • Saudi Arabia: Supports Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 agenda for modernisation, economic diversification and climate action. Enhances mutual prosperity by promoting inward investment and creating opportunities for UK companies, especially in the education, culture, tourism, sport and finance sectors.
  • UAE: Supports work to jointly identify threats of mutual concern such as illicit finance and terrorism and delivers enhanced UK and UAE capabilities to tackle them. Increases opportunities for inward investment to the UK, including through Expo 2020, and strengthened educational and cultural partnerships.

GSF funding has proved controversial, however. The APPG on Democracy and Human Rights in the Gulf is among groups to have argued that UK support to GCC countries through the GSF lacks transparency and has compromised UK commitments to human rights. It has called for the GSF to be suspended. Meanwhile the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy has accused the government of “propping up brutal Gulf dictatorships by rewarding some of the most repressive regimes on earth, notorious for their systematic use of torture and the death penalty to crush their own citizens”.

The government denies this is the case. For example, in September 2022 the government reiterated its view of the fund’s aims. It said:

The FCDO’s international programme, and within it the GSF, is a vital tool in promoting positive change and reforms across the world, including in the Gulf. Our programmes help our partners to continue their human rights reform, address key climate change and green growth opportunities and challenges, tackle illicit finance, improve marine conservation, promote economic diversification, promote diversity and inclusion including on LGBTQ+ rights, and develop their institutions.

All cooperation through the international programme, including the GSF, is subject to rigorous risk assessments to ensure all work meets our human rights obligations and our values. The government does not shy away from raising legitimate human rights concerns and encourage other states to respect international law.

In addition, Foreign Secretary James Cleverly has previously said the UK has a “strong history of protecting human rights and promoting our values globally and we continue to encourage all states, including our friends in the Gulf, to uphold international human rights obligations”.

3.2 Trade negotiations

In March 2021, the government’s ‘Integrated review of security, defence, development and foreign policy’ identified trade with the Gulf states as a means to “support the levelling up agenda in the UK” and further the UK’s security objectives in the region. The government later said that “more trade will not come at the expense of human rights”.

In November 2021, the House of Commons International Trade Committee launched an inquiry to scrutinise any trade agreement. In June 2022, the government wrote to the committee to confirm that it would shortly launch and begin free trade agreement (FTA) negotiations with the GCC. It said:

The Gulf Cooperation Council is a political and economic alliance between Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. These 6 countries are home to 54 million people and in 2021 had a collective economy of £1.2 trillion.

The Gulf Cooperation Council is the UK’s 7th largest export market, and total trade was worth £33.1 billion in 2021. An FTA would be a substantial opportunity for both our economies and a significant moment in the UK–Gulf Cooperation Council relationship. It will grow the economy, and support jobs and the levelling up agenda.

Government analysis shows that an FTA is expected to increase trade by at least 16%, add at least £1.6 billion a year to the UK economy and contribute an additional £600 million or more to annual UK workers’ wages.

The first round of negotiations took place between 22 August and 29 September 2022. Media reports noted that the government statement commenting on the negotiations did not explicitly mention human rights.

In an oral evidence session before the House of Commons International Trade Committee that took place in July 2022, Rosa Crawford, a policy officer at the Trades Union Congress (TUC), called on the government to take a “human rights-based approach toward trade”. She added:

We also say there that it should be a precondition of any trade deal that fundamental human rights are respected and that respect should be shown towards those fundamental rights ahead of talks being entered into.

The TUC had previously called on the government not to enter into trade talks with the GCC “due to systematic violations of human and workers’ rights taking place”.

The Law Society of England and Wales and the Law Society of Scotland are among bodies to have submitted written evidence to the committee’s inquiry. The former said that while “human rights challenges do not necessarily mean that the UK should not trade with a particular country at all or that unreasonable restrictions should be placed on such trade”, it was of the view that “significant and well-reported challenges in various jurisdictions in the region […] should not be ignored in negotiations for an FTA with the states of the GCC”. The latter added that it “strongly” urged the government to “use any negotiations to promote human rights in the region”.

3.3 Other recent interactions

On 14 November 2022, the government confirmed that Foreign Secretary James Cleverly would travel to Qatar for the FIFA World Cup. In response to suggestions during a House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee oral evidence session held on 14 November 2022 that LGBTQ+ fans should not attend the World Cup in Qatar, Mr Cleverly said that he had spoken to Qatari officials to urge them to “respect gay fans”. It had been previously reported that the Labour Party frontbench at Westminster would boycott the tournament over concerns for LGBT+ rights, women’s rights and workers’ rights in the country. However, Welsh First Minister Mark Drakeford was reported to be planning to attend to “promote inclusivity” and “respect for human rights” at the tournament.

4. Read more

4.1 Human rights in the Gulf states

4.2 Bahrain

4.3 Kuwait

4.4 Oman

4.5 Qatar

4.6 Saudi Arabia

4.7 United Arab Emirates

Cover image by Lara Jameson on Pexels.