Earlier this month media across Europe was dominated by the discussion of free speech prompted by the horrific attacks in Paris. As the hunt for the attackers began world leaders swiftly came out in support of France and the now famous ‘march’ for free speech was organised.
The hypocrisy of that photo opportunity that presented itself as a solidarity has now been well discussed, as critics across the world pointed the countless human rights abuses and acts of repression represented in the crowd of global figures. It became obvious quickly that the freedom of speech was not the primary concern of the mingling world leaders.
But now, less than a month after European leaders pledged renewed support, it seems as though the strive for free speech has once again taken a backseat.
Hours after the death of King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz of Saudi Arabia was announced many European leaders shared their condolences for the royal family and the people of their country. Podiums and microphones previously used to dennounce attack on the free press were now used to mourn the loss of a ruler who banned petitions in his country. A ruler whose nation recently ruled to give 1000 lashes to a blogger who encouraged religious and political debate. A ruler whose nation has been earmarked as having one of the worst records on human rights in modern history.
The mourning was perhaps most noticable in London, where British authorities requested that flags across the country be flown half-mast. The request is said to have been issued by Queen Elizabeth II, who now holds the record of the world’s oldest monarch.
As government buildings complied many Brits, including myself, were quick to criticise. The tradition of flags are a (ridiculously) significant part of my country’s establishment, and the honour of a nation-wide half-mast is normally reserved for incredibly important events. The last time I saw it was following the death of Nelson Mandela. Even after the events surrounding Charlie Hebdo prompted international solidarity it was not seen. Only one government department, the Foreign Ministry, chose to honour France’s dead.
When it comes to Europe Saudi Arabia has held a unique position of impunity. Authorities there have continued to abuse the human rights of much of their citizens and to oppress free-speech while a cross-continent culture of silence dominates Europe’s foreign policy. The questionable decisions of King Abdullah’s regime have gone almost entirely without reprisals, while many other nations suffer for their similar actions.
Many, of course, will mourn the loss of King Abdullah for genuine reasons. In the region he was seen as a reformer – many of his policies were seen as progressive steps in Saudi Arabia. He was also seen as a force for peace. As the ‘custodian’ of Islam he overlooked the religion’s most holy sites. He encouraged peace and stability in the Middle East and often used his position in Islam to push for this. His pious and (comparatively) modest lifestyle was widely praised by many of his peers. As I write this scores of messages from across the globe are mourning the loss of a man that many considered great.
Genuine grief is a rare thing in politics. When it comes to world leaders every loss is followed by an avalanche of carefully-considered statements, delicate wording and even more delicate actions. What results is a politically-managed sort of neutrality, designed carefully not to offend the wrong kinds of people. No one ever expected tears to form in the corner of Angela Merkel’s eyes, yet the act still continues.
But in Europe, these leader’s actions have only helped to further highlight the false concerns over freedom of speech that were previously the political vogue. The death of King Abdullah has unearthed the unsavoury reality of Europe – one in which economic ties and political lip-service take preference over a genuine desire to promote change and progress.
So now a new era for Saudi Arabia is beginning as King Abdullah’s successor, his half-brother the Crown Prince Salman, takes to the throne. Many are hopeful that Salman will step-up as a reformer of the nation, while many critics predict ‘business as usual’.
It is impossible to predict what the future holds for the nation. But as much of the world looks to the future of Saudi Arabia the role of Europe in the country’s future is largely unexamined. A new era marks the chance for Saudi Arabia to move towards reform and to amend its current record on human rights. But a new era also presents the chance for Europe to reassess it’s ‘special relationship’ with the Middle Eastern power. It gives leaders the opportunity to end an ongoing hypocrisy that has helped support an oppressive regime while at home they attempt to sway voters with claims of ‘je suis Charlie’.
Tom Ana is a charity worker and blogger from England with an interest in human rights and LGBT issues. He is the editor of Euroclash!. You can follow him on Twitter here!
You can read more about the nations that Europe chooses to punish or forgive here.