Readers like you keep news free for everyone.

More than 5,000 readers have already pitched in to keep free access to The Journal.

For the price of one cup of coffee each week you can help keep paywalls away.

Support us today
Not now
Dublin: 17°C Sunday 7 August 2022

The human rights issues which aren’t being discussed on Taoiseach’s Gulf visit

Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Minister for Jobs Richard Bruton have come in for criticism for not raising human rights issues during their visit to Saudi Arabia and Qatar – but what exactly are the issues?

Taoiseach Enda Kenny shakes hands with Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed al Nahyan, Minister for Foreign Affairs in Abu Dhabi.
Taoiseach Enda Kenny shakes hands with Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed al Nahyan, Minister for Foreign Affairs in Abu Dhabi.
Image: Photocall Ireland/GIS

ALMOST SEVEN YEARS ago to the day, then-Taoiseach Bertie Ahern travelled to Saudi Arabia on one of the largest Irish trade missions ever.

At the time, he came in for a lot of the same criticisms which have been thrown at Enda Kenny and Richard Bruton about their current trip, with Pat Rabbitte in particular asking tough questions about whether Ahern had brought up the “shocking human rights situation” in Saudi Arabia, citing in particular the discriminatory practices against women.

Bertie Ahern brushed off a lot of the criticisms in a way eerily similar to that of Enda Kenny and Richard Bruton in recent days. He cited the benefits to Ireland in having a good business relationship with rich countries in the Middle East, and said that human rights concerns should be stated ‘from an EU position’.

However, he went slightly further than Kenny or Bruton and addressed the issue of the problems in some of the countries he had visited.

“While I do not agree with the positions they take in Saudi Arabia, they believe they are reforming at their own pace,” Ahern told the Dáil. “This is not how we would view such issues but they are moving along, regardless of how slow is progess [sic].”

The last time I was in Saudi Arabia was almost 20 years ago. Things have changed, but they have their own pace and way of doing things. They talk openly about their past and they accept the position of the EU and our views.

That’s more than either Kenny or Bruton have said so far, instead choosing to focus on the business side of things – and there’s a clear reason why. The Department of Jobs said this morning that the trade mission has yielded €25 million in contracts so far, with nine Irish companies getting new business during the first three days of the trip.

So when Richard Bruton says that the trip was neither the time nor the place to bring up concerns about human rights issues, and Enda Kenny says that he wanted to focus on the “credibility and integrity” of Irish companies, it’s clear that their focus is on the trade mission and ensuring that it is a success, leaving human rights issues to be discussed at another time.

However, other people have brought up ethical concerns about doing business with some of the countries involved in the trip – Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates – arguing that this is exactly the time when Ireland should be raising such issues.

Colm O’Gorman of Amnesty International said there are “very, very grave concerns in relation to the treatment of migrant workers” in Qatar, where intensive construction work is taking place ahead of the 2022 World Cup (at least, assuming it takes place). O’Gorman said Ireland has a “clear responsibility” to raise human rights issues with other countries, noting particular concerns about Saudi Arabia’s treatment of women.

Separately, Socialist Party MEP Paul Murphy has written an open letter to the Taoiseach criticising him for praising ‘brutal dictatorships’ and questioning comments made by Enda Kenny in which the Taoiseach said he assumed that the people working on building World Cup stadiums in Qatar have proper working conditions and proper facilities.

“The impression is given that you consider that the issues of human rights are separate from those of trade,” Murphy wrote.

Murphy said that the Fine Gael/Labour government has often spoken about supporting the values of democracy and human rights internationally.

“If that is anything more than rhetoric, you would apply these principles in your trade policies and vocally demand an end to gross violation of human rights and ratification and implementation of the International Labour Organisation core standards,” he said.

‘Human rights issues’ can mask a series of concerns, so here are some of the problems that have been highlighted in each of the countries being visited by the Taoiseach and Minister for Jobs.

Saudi Arabia

Background: The modern state of Saudi Arabia, which is the birthplace of Islam, was founded in 1932. The country has a population of more than 30 million and has become one of the wealthiest nations in the region due to its vast oil resources. It has been ruled by the Al Saud family since the 18th century.

imageA veiled woman walking in Mecca, Saudi Arabia. (AP Photo/Aya Batrawy)

  • Women and girls are forbidden from travelling, conducting official business, or undergoing certain medical procedures without permission from their male guardians.
  • Women are banned from driving and from working in certain professions.
  • Strict clothing restrictions are enforced for women in public
  • Floggings, amputations and public execution by beheading are used as punishment for breaking the law.
  • Human Rights Watch says ‘thousands’ of people have received unfair trials or been subject to arbitrary detention.
  • Detainees are often tortured and treated badly while in detention.
  • Political parties are banned.
  • The country does not have a written penal code listing criminal offences and the associated penalties, meaning that judges have complete discretion. Last year, one man was beheaded for practicing ‘witchcraft and sorcery’.
  • Blasphemy is forbidden under penalty of death.
  • Any publication which contradicts Sharia law, or which damages the reputation of the country’s rulers, are banned.
  • The government owns most print and broadcast media and book publication facilities.
  • Many migrant workers are forced to work in slavery-like conditions.
  • Domestic workers often endure forced confinement, food deprivation and abuse.
  • The country held elections in 2011 for half of the seats on its local authorities and there were no irregularities reported in the results. However women were not allowed to stand as candidates or to vote.


Background: Qatar is an absolute monarchy which has been ruled by one family since the mid-1800s. The tiny country has a population of just over 2 million, but is one of the richest countries in the world due to its oil and natural gas reserves.

imageA Qatar Airways Boeing 787 Dreamliner. (AP Photo/Remy de la Mauviniere)

  • The biggest human rights problems identified by the US State Department are the inability of citizens to change their government peacefully, restriction of fundamental civil liberties, and pervasive denial of expatriate workers’ rights.
  • A major investigationby the Guardian in September found that dozens of poor migrant workers have died in conditions of ‘modern day slavery’ ahead of the World Cup in 2022.
  • Migrant workers – who make up more than half of the population, report not being paid, living in overcrowded and unsanitary labour camps, and no access to water.
  • Political parties are banned in Qatar.
  • Human Rights Watch has said forced labour and human trafficking are ‘serious problems’ in the country.
  • Qatar has no law specifically criminalising domestic violence and there are no figures collected on incidents of domestic violence.
  • Sharia law is the main source of legislation.

United Arab Emirates

Background: The UAE is made up of seven semi-autonomous emirates with a total population of around 8.5 million. The rulers of the seven emirates make up the country’s highest legislative and executive body, which selects a president from its membership. This president appoints the prime minister and cabinet.

Making a difference

A mix of advertising and supporting contributions helps keep paywalls away from valuable information like this article.

Over 5,000 readers like you have already stepped up and support us with a monthly payment or a once-off donation.

For the price of one cup of coffee each week you can make sure we can keep reliable, meaningful news open to everyone regardless of their ability to pay.


The world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifain in Dubai, UAE. (AP Photo/Kamran Jebreili)

  • The US State Department has said the three biggest human rights problems are arbitrary arrests, limitations on citizens’ civil liberties, and the fact that citizens aren’t allowed to change their government.
  • There is little freedom of speech or freedom of the press – the UAE does not allow criticism of the government and royal families.
  • People who have spoken out have been detained under the charge of harming national security.
  • Citizens do not have the right to vote, change their government, or form political parties
  • There have been reports of torture carried out at State facilities.
  • Human Rights Watch says the human rights situation worsened in recent years, with authorities arbitrarily detaining and deporting civil rights activists, and harrassing and intimidating their lawyers.
  • Family law matters are dealt with by Sharia courts.
  • Men are allowed to have up to four polygamous marriages; meanwhile women are forbidden from marrying non-Muslims.
  • People from outside the UAE make up more than 88 per cent of the population – but many are poor migrant workers. There is no minimum wage, no right to unions, and they face penalties if they go on strike. Withholding of travel documents and low pay – or no pay – has been widely reported.
  • Despite all this, the UAE – which includes Abu Dhabi and Dubai – is widely held to be one of the most liberal countries in the Middle East. It was elected to the UN Human Rights council for a 3-year term in 2012.

This article was first published on 08 January 2014.

Read: Gulf states trade trip ‘not time or place’ to bring up human rights concerns >

Read: Government won’t say if Taoiseach has or will raise human rights concerns with Gulf states >

Read next: