SUZANNE HARRINGTON: Our attitude to Saudi sticks in the throat

According to the Irish Embassy in Riyadh, “The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is a welcoming and hospitable country with many unique traditions.”

Like public beheading. How uniquely medieval. 

Because what Saudi Arabia emphatically does not welcome is women protesting about human rights — they’re still coming to terms with women behind steering wheels.

Israa al-Ghomgham, aged 29, has been in jail since 2015 without trial or access to a lawyer. 

She had the neck (unfortunately metaphor, given the Saudi predilection for hacking through them) to protest peacefully about the unequal treatment of Shias, the minority religion within the theocracy — al-Ghomgham is herself Shia.

And now, according to Human Rights Watch, she’s up for trial in front of the country’s terrorism court, which reports directly to the king. 

The verdict is likely to be Off With Her Head, making al-Ghomgham the first Saudi woman to be executed for peaceful protest, activities which Human Rights Watch says “do not resemble recognisable crimes”. 

The organisation calls this possible outcome “monstrous”.

I’ve been thinking about Israa a lot. 

I don’t know why — she’s hardly unique in her monstrous situation, given how women globally continue to bear the brunt of second-class citizenship, with the possible exceptions of Scandinavia or Iceland or New Zealand. (We in Ireland may have the legislation, but culturally are still playing catch-up).

But there’s just something so horrorshow, so gulag, so Kafka, about being locked up for peacefully registering your dissent; I think of all the peaceful demonstrations I have attended over the years.


How many heads I would have lost. Chop chop. 

We don’t even know what Israa al-Ghomgham looks like — the photo circulating online is not her, but another peaceful activist, Samar Badawi. 

Does Israa realise that people are talking about her, that we know her name, that we are worried about her? Unlikely.

So what can we do? 

The Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister has stuck her neck out — I really need to find another metaphor — in defence of the peaceful activism of Saudi protestors, including al-Ghomgham and Badawi. 

This has resulted in Saudi governmental hissy fit, with ambassadors expelled, trading ceased, and 16,000 Saudi medical students ordered to return home. 

Canada has been left scratching its head and muttering WTF, as the rest of the world carries on as normal, the UK continuing its sales of weapons to the Saudi government to use in the bombing of schools and hospitals in Yemen. 

Business as usual.

Ireland, being small, has enormous freedom. 

We will not cause the end of the world by expressing our displeasure at injustice — the Irish ban on goods from the Occupied Territories is a small but potent symbol. 

Yet we exported US$795 million worth of Irish goodies to Saudi last year. 

Dare we draw Saudi wrath by commenting on the utter repugnance of slaughtering their citizens in public squares (or anywhere, frankly)? 

Or do we zip it, other than to gush about their “unique traditions” on our embassy website? 

Kind of sticks in the throat, no?

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